Silence on Syria

The axiom of shared values between the US and Israel has an exception: promoting democracy among our neighbors.

It is axiomatic that the bond between the United States and Israel is built not merely on common interests, but also on the shared values of our citizens, in particular our mutual love of freedom and democracy. Because of this strong bond, our alliance can weather many disagreements between our governments - whether over issues such as the potential construction of the E1 corridor between Ma'aleh Adumim and Jerusalem, or divergent interpretations of President George W. Bush's April 2004 letter to the Israeli prime minister.

Such disagreements clearly stem from respective domestic political needs and not fundamental ideological differences. The sense of mutuality is further reinforced by the chemistry between Israeli and US leaders.

But unfortunately, upon closer scrutiny, the axiom of shared values has an exception when it comes to promoting democracy among our neighbors. The central feature of Bush's policy in our region is his passionate belief in the possibility of a democratic Middle East, a belief buttressed by his conviction that democratization is the only sure path to peace in the region. In Israel this policy is viewed with deep skepticism, with most policymakers in Jerusalem considering it at best naive, at worst dangerously misguided.

Our government's rejection of Bush's democratic vision for the region has already had profound consequences. The road map is a case in point. When on June 24, 2002, Bush delivered his revolutionary speech about the democratization of the Palestinian Authority being the critical condition for advancing the peace process, the Israeli government did absolutely nothing. We produced no initiative. We formulated no plans. We didn't even hold a meeting.

WITH OUR government silent, the State Department shifted into high gear. Loyal to the principles of realpolitik and having its own reservations about the president's bold statements, the State Department advanced a plan of its own, using Bush's rhetoric but designing the new plan according to logic similar to that which governs the Oslo Accords.

That is how an Israeli leadership which thought it was gaining time by doing nothing was actually forced to accept the road map.

Even though criticism of Bush's doctrine of promoting democracy has escalated in the past few months, support for those policies within his administration has only strengthened.

For example, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is trying to advance a veritable democratic revolution within the State Department, a revolution I had the opportunity to witness firsthand when I spoke recently at a conference held by the State Department and devoted to the connection between global politics and the promotion of democracy. The statements and actions of Bush have given the necessary push to far-reaching democratic developments in our region, from the seismic events in Lebanon to the bolstering of democratic forces in Egypt, Kuwait and other countries.

Nowadays, the US has rightly pointed the finger at Syria for the negative role it is playing in the region. Syrian support for terrorism is aimed at preventing the democratization of Iraq and at thwarting any reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians. The results of the Mehlis report, clearly connecting Syria to the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, have presented the US and Europe with a unique opportunity to change the oppressive regime in Syria.

AND WHAT is Israel's position on this issue? Does it support changes that could replace a dictatorial, hostile and aggressive regime with one that is more peaceful and democratic? Hardly. In fact, anonymous voices coming from the highest government quarters express strong reservations concerning the idea.

Why? Because these officials fear that change in Syria would bring "chaos" to the region or, what they see as even worse should Syrian democracy take root, Israel's being forced to negotiate the future of the Golan Heights.

Sadly, this approach to potential democratic change is nothing new. Over the past 15 years Israel has repeatedly shot itself in the foot in our Sisyphean efforts to embrace strong dictators who, we foolishly hoped, would bring us stability. Time after time we have mistakenly believed that supporting strong dictators is better than engendering democracy.

In Syria's case we seem to have taken this insanity one step further: Today, we prefer a weak dictator to democratic change.

Statecraft which relies on support for "strong and friendly" dictators or "hostile and weak" ones will inevitably yield the same result. Hatred toward Israel from our neighbors will be perpetuated as each succeeding generation is raised on the increasingly deep-rooted belief that Israel must be annihilated. Weak or strong, non-democratic regimes need external enemies to survive.

Democratic regimes, in contrast, depend on popular support. Thus, no matter what their ideology, because the needs of citizens are paramount and because citizens prefer peace to war and prosperity to poverty, democratic neighbors inevitably seek common interests and cooperation.

When I met Syrian dissidents in Washington it was clear to me that this is the case in Syria as well. There is no doubt that Bashar Assad's regime - as is true of all dictatorships - is rotting from within. Changing it does not even require outside intervention; it is enough to support those forces inside Syria that are striving for freedom and democracy.

By withholding our support for the American policy of democratization in our region and by adhering to a shortsighted policy aimed at propping up strong and friendly dictatorships, or weak and antagonistic ones, we are committing a grave strategic error. Again we are missing a historic opportunity to bring peace and security to the region.

The writer is Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Shalem Center and, together with Ron Dermer, author of The Case For Democracy.