Rattling the Cage: Facing war, choosing peace

Once again, after a long hiatus, Israel is doing the right thing with Syria.

larry derfner 88 (photo credit: )
larry derfner 88
(photo credit: )
Israel's position on war and peace is changing very fast, even turning upside down, and as jittery as the situation is on the ground, this week has brought some of the most heartening news I've heard in a long while. It started on Sunday with Yediot Aharonot's banner headline: "Senior IDF officials pressing Olmert to talk with Assad - 'Negotiations with Syria or danger of war this summer.'" The gist of this story has been floating around for several months, but here it was at the top of the front page of the country's largest newspaper, and, most importantly, written by Nahum Barnea, Israel's best-connected, most influential, most authoritative journalist. I doubt if Barnea would have written "senior IDF officials" if they didn't include the most senior of all, IDF Chief of Staff Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi. What this means, plainly and simply, is that it's not just this senior IDF official or that senior IDF official who wants Israeli-Syrian peace talks - it's the IDF, period. Not just Peace Now, not just Meretz - the Israel Defense Forces. Then, the following day, the banner headline on Yediot's front page was: "Ex-defense minister echoes call of senior IDF officials - Mofaz: Talk with the Syrians." The story, written by another very reliable journalist, Yediot's diplomatic correspondent Shimon Shiffer, said Mofaz would be in Washington today with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice seeking US support for Israeli-Syrian talks. And on the day after that Mofaz went yet another step further by giving an on-the-record interview to two completely reliable journalists, Jerusalem Post diplomatic correspondent Herb Keinon and military correspondent Yaakov Katz, in which he recommended a "secret channel" between Israel and Syria to gauge whether Assad's repeated peace overtures were sincere. "Israel should not ignore a country that called on it to open peace talks, Mofaz said," read the Post story. MOFAZ CAN'T just be speaking for himself. Beyond being the transportation minister, he is also Ehud Olmert's deputy prime minister. He is representing the Israeli government in talks today with Rice. He is leading the Israeli security delegation holding a "strategic dialog" this weekend with an American security delegation. And as a former defense minister and IDF chief of staff, Mofaz is the senior bithonist, or security maven, in the cabinet. For all the talk about Olmert's indecision on whether to talk to Syria or not, it is impossible to interpret Mofaz's interviews with Yediot and the Post on the eve of his trip to the US as anything but a statement of Israeli government policy. Furthermore, it seems pretty clear from various news reports that Israel is already holding indirect talks with Syrian officials through Turkish intermediaries. Now Mofaz is going to Washington to try to secure the Bush administration's backing for direct Israeli-Syrian talks, the hope being that they will lead to full-fledged peace negotiations between the two enemies - the ultimate hope being, of course, that such negotiations would lead to peace. This is a change, a dramatic change. Until now, Olmert has been parroting the ridiculous US line that there can be no talks with Syria until Syria stops aiding terrorists - in other words, demanding that Bashar Assad give Israel what it wants up front, without any quid pro quo. Last year Olmert even put on his best solemn expression and said, "As long as I serve as prime minister, the Golan Heights will remain in our hands because it is an integral part of the State of Israel." THE SELF-DELUSION appears to be over. The immediate danger of war with Syria, the bitter experience of war with Hizbullah and its aftermath, and the declining power and influence of President Bush have moved Israeli military and political leaders off the dime. Except on the hardline Right, there has been a 15-year consensus among Israel's leadership that peace with Syria is more vital to this country than the Golan Heights. Still, nobody wants to give up the Golan, and since Syria seemed too weak to make war, and since Bush wouldn't let us have anything to do with the Syrians anyway, there was no rush. Well, there's a rush now. Even those bithonistim like Mofaz, who don't think Syria intends to start a war to force negotiations over the Golan, do think the situation on the northern border has become so flammable that even a "small match," as he put it, could set off a huge fire. So it's time for Olmert to make his move. There's no reason to think he was ever serious about keeping the Golan forever; even Binyamin Netanyahu, as prime minister, offered it to Syria for peace, not to mention Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak. Shimon Peres intended to do the same. Olmert is no hardline right-winger. By making it clear that he wants negotiations with Syria he is saying that he, too, is ready to part with the Golan for peace. According to news reports, what he wants to know first is whether Assad is willing to pay the price rightly expected of him - cutting off Hizbullah and the Palestinian terror organizations, which would cause a severe weakening, at least, of Syria's alliance with Iran. And if Assad is unwilling, then Syria, not Israel, becomes the side rejecting peace, which makes it a lot more difficult politically for Assad to start a war. So once again, after a long hiatus, Israel is doing the right thing with Syria. The problem, however, is Bush. He still believes in "my way or the highway," he still thinks he can bring Syria to its knees with this Hariri assassination probe, he still thinks you don't negotiate with terrorists. But occupation - such as Israel's occupation of the Golan - is fine as far as he's concerned. War and loss of innocent life don't seem to bother him too much, either. BUT I DON'T think he's going to prevail. There is too much pressure from Israel, and too urgent a threat to Israel, for this failed president to have his way and stop any chance for peace and just let another war in the Middle East happen. I think Israeli officials are going to be talking to Syrian officials soon, and if the word from the Syrian side is that they're willing to get out of the terror business, then instead of war there will be peace negotiations that - who knows? - might succeed. And if, on the other hand, Assad insists on his right to go on playing patron to Hizbullah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad even after Israel gives him back the Golan, then there will be no peace negotiations - but Syria will find itself in a weaker position to start a war. As Mofaz said about the secret channel he plans to ask Rice today to support: "This is necessary due to the reality. And this is a step that has many advantages and very few disadvantages." So it's been some week so far. Despite Israelis' completely legitimate fears, this could turn out to be a very good summer after all.