Background: Playing the Syrian card

Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter is neither a stupid nor impulsive man. The former Shin Bet (Israel Security Service) head, who many credit for significantly bringing down the number of "successful" Palestinian terrorist attacks, is not known for slips of the tongue or shooting from the hip. So his remarks (trial balloon) Monday that he was in favor of withdrawing from the Golan Heights in exchange for a true peace with Syria cannot be dismissed as the naive thinking of a security simpleton. Rather they reflect a school of thought that posits that the key to solving Israel's problems in Lebanon and Gaza rests in Damascus. This reasoning is different from a school of thought gaining traction in the US, and championed by New York Times Columnist Thomas Friedman, that the US should make overtures to Syria in an effort to pry it loose from its marriage of convenience with Iran. In Israel, however, the idea of negotiating with Syria over the Golan has less to do with peeling Syria away from Iran, and more in getting Syria to throw Hizbullah and Hamas overboard. Will it work? Highly unlikely as long as Bashar Assad is in charge in Damascus, a man officials at the highest governmental levels here say is less stable than Hassan Nasrallah. But Dichter is a logical man, and there is an internal logic to this thinking. Syrian support is essential for Hizbullah to rearm and rebuild itself after the war. Not only does Syria itself supply arms to Hizbullah, but it also lets Iran supply weapons to Hizbullah through Syrian territory. Take Syria out of this equation, and Hizbullah is badly weakened. Likewise, for weeks Israeli policy makers have been frustrated that Hamas head Khaled Mashal - considered much more extreme than even the extreme Hamas leadership in Gaza - is calling the shots for the organization from Damascus. For instance, government officials say that while Hamas/Gaza would like to find a way to release Gilad Shalit, Mashal is vetoing any such deal. Again, Syrian influence here is very important. Israel has been trying to get Assad to rein in Mashal, but to no avail. The logic in negotiating with Damascus is that if a political horizon is dangled before Assad, he may do more to control Mashal and bring about a somewhat more pliable Hamas position on a variety of issues. The question many diplomatic players around the world are asking themselves is how to get Damascus to play a stabilizing, rather than destabilizing, role in the region. The answer Dichter gave Monday was to offer them a grand prize - negotiations that could lead to a Golan withdrawal. "Talks with Syria are legitimate," Dichter said. "If there is someone to talk to on the other side, we should talk." It's a straw for the Syrians to grasp. If they do, according to this logic, then Israel may have leverage it could use to get Syria to get Hamas and Hizbullah to behave. This argument is the first cousin to an argument posited by former National Security Council head Giora Eiland when he drafted a paper presented to then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in 2004 saying it was not in Israel's interest for Syria to leave Lebanon. According to Eiland's thinking at the time, there was some control over Hizbullah with Syria in Lebanon, because Damascus knew that its troops and installations might be targeted by Israel if Hizbullah behaved irresponsibly. With Syria gone, all leverage on Hizbullah was lost. Sharon rejected Eiland's arguments, and Israel supported UN Security Council Resolution 1559 calling for Syria to leave the country. In hindsight, however, that may not have been in Israel's best interests. Dichter made it clear Monday that he felt it may now be in Israel's interests to keep Syria in the game, if only as a way to get them to ensure that their proxies behave. The problem, however, is that if you keep Syria in the game by dangling the Golan as a prize before their eyes, they may indeed want the prize, something for which the Israeli public - following the less than resounding success of withdrawals from Lebanon and Gaza - does not seem now to have much of an appetite.