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Let's face it. Nearly all of us thought the war last summer was justified and, despite everything that Judge Winograd wrote in his report, we still think so. The people who applauded the decision so enthusiastically could not, of course, have known the manner in which it was taken; they could not have known that the army was not ready, that there was no clear-cut game plan, no strategic depth to the decision. There was an implicit reliance on our army and on our leaders. The feeling was that Hizbullah had crossed a red line, and had to be dealt with, and I believe that feeling was correct.
There are times when a country has to go to war, when a Churchillian decision is preferable to a Chamberlainian policy of appeasement. Yet war must be a means of last resort, to be launched only after all other avenues have been tried, and blocked. As we approach the summer months, we hear an increasing number of voices warning of another war in the North, but this time with Syria, and not Hizbullah in Lebanon. And if that happens, that war will go down in the history of Israel as the most crass, the most idiotic and most unnecessary of all our wars.
We are a country with rich experience of wars. Yet at least one war, one of the most bitter and deadly of them all, the Yom Kippur War, could have been avoided. We could have prevented it in almost exactly the same fashion that we can prevent a war with Syria today.
Anwar Sadat, just like Bashar Assad, offered to enter into peace negotiations with us. More than a year before the Yom Kippur War exploded on us, he told us "peace in exchange for Sinai." We turned him down, and the result was - eventually - that we did agree to peace in exchange for Sinai, but only after a war in which more than 2,000 Israeli soldiers were killed and many more thousands wounded.
The Agranat committee of investigation, amazingly, exonerated the prime minister, although Golda Meir's fault in allowing the war to happen was a thousand times more severe than anything that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert did last year. She could have replied to Sadat, "Yes, let's enter into negotiations," just as Olmert could say the same to Assad today. She could have averted the war, and the deaths of 2,000 soldiers, just as our government can do today.
How many will die if fighting flares in the Golan this summer? Every single loss of life will have been in vain, for eventually we will be negotiating with the Syrians, and we will reach an agreement with Damascus on a solution in the Golan, just as Menachem Begin did with Egypt over the Sinai.
Our National Security Adviser, Ilan Mizrahi, went on record last week declaring that the Syrian overtures for peace negotiations were genuine. Mizrahi is not well known to the Israeli public.
He was a top operative in the Mossad before landing the job of national security adviser. He does not seek publicity; he shies away from it. He is, however, highly intelligent. He would not have made such a statement unless he had analyzed the Syrian situation in the most thorough manner possible, and unless he was utterly convinced that it was necessary for us to engage the Syrians - in talks and not in arms.
So the question must be asked: Why does Olmert insist in walking in the footsteps of Golda Meir, making the same terrible mistake that she did? It can't be because of the Americans for, after all, we have seen Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice ensconced with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem, to say nothing of the House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in Damascus visiting President Assad.
The sad truth is that Olmert is so weak today that he is incapable of leading any new initiative. Instead of leading, he is a hostage of what he perceives to be public opinion. Far easier to do nothing than to risk the opprobrium of some of his followers by taking courageous steps to defuse the conflict with our neighbors, even if, by ignoring the Syrian overtures, he risks a repeat performance of Yom Kippur. That conflagration was caused by the same attitude of refusing to talk peace with our neighbors.
There is an old Arab proverb that says qabla dar, bahath al-jar - before buying a house, see who are the neighbors. We did not have that privilege when we returned to this land. The Syrians are not easy neighbors. They are arming Hizbullah, they are backing the Hamas extremists, and they are courting Iran. We will not get them to change by demanding preconditions to talks, but we might succeed by, at the very least, entering into prenegotiations in which we could set out the parameters for going down the road towards a settlement. If we don't succeed we will at least have shown to them and to the world our desire for peace with them.
If we don't, and if history repeats itself and we find ourselves at war this summer with Syria, we won't need another Winograd Committee to tell us where we went wrong. It will be only too plain for all of us to see.