Rattling the Cage: Why Israel must talk to Syria

What's this nonsense about preconditions? We've insisted on "direct negotiations" without them for years.

larry derfner 88 (photo credit: )
larry derfner 88
(photo credit: )
If for no other reason than the Israeli people's psychological well-being, the Olmert government has to accept Syria's offer to begin peace negotiations. Since the summer war in Lebanon, Israelis have gone into a serious, dangerous depression, and it's only getting deeper. This week it came out that the army is gearing up for a war it believes Syria and Hizbullah will launch against us next summer, and the news didn't cause even a ripple. Israelis are on war overload. Tell them there's going to be a war with Syria next summer, and they think: "Hmm. I wonder if it'll start before the war in Gaza turns into a new intifada, or maybe the war with Iran will start first, then the new intifada, then the war with Syria. Interesting. What's for lunch?" Israelis have resigned themselves to a life of war and a future of war. It's no mystery why - the Katyushas from Lebanon and the Kassams from Gaza killed their belief in unilateral withdrawal, which was supposed to be Israel's lifeline to peace after the last intifada killed most people's belief in negotiations. The only options left, most Israelis are now convinced, is fight or flight, and since very few of us are about to flee the country, that leaves only fight - here, there, wherever. When will it end? Who knows, that's the way it is. We're becoming like primitive, Third World peasants who kill and die in feuds with the same enemies for century after century until they don't even question it anymore. It's God's will, they say, it's in the Bible. My sons will be killed, my daughters will be killed? That's what happened to my parents and my grandparents, and it'll happen to my sons and grandsons, the ones who survive, God willing. No use worrying about it. Just keep digging. That may be normal life for Third World peasants, but Israelis are a forward-looking, ambitious people - they cannot live without hope for peace. Yet that's what they've arrived at. They've accepted war as their fate. Which has put them in a serious, dangerous depression. NOW HERE comes Syrian President Bashar Assad and, only a few days ago, Foreign Minister Walid Muallem to urge Israel to talk peace - and Ehud Olmert says no. He's got preconditions. The Syrians first have to cut off Hizbullah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Iran. For good measure, he says, "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." Does anybody believe him? If he was convinced Assad was sincere about peace, or if the Americans twisted his arm, does anybody believe Olmert would make his stand on the Golan, when not only Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak but even Binyamin Netanyahu were prepared to give it up? And what is this nonsense about preconditions? For so many years it was Israel that was insisting on "direct negotiations without preconditions" while the Arabs were demanding that Israel first get out of the occupied territories, and only then would they talk. Now an Arab leader wants to talk to Israel, and Israel is saying no, we've got preconditions. What hypocrisy. Syria doesn't have any political alliances that it didn't have before, when three Israeli prime ministers were conducting peace negotiations through the US with Hafez Assad. Does anybody believe that these alliances are Olmert's real reason for refusing to talk to Bashar Assad? The real reason Olmert won't talk is because the Bush administration won't let him, something the administration hasn't even tried to hide. As far as Bush is concerned, Syria is an auxiliary member of the axis of evil, and you don't talk to them, you freeze them out, keep them guessing whether you're going to regime-change their asses, and wait for them to come begging. This strategy has worked about as well with Syria as it has with Iran and North Korea, and about as well as the crusade for democracy has worked in Iraq. It may be about to change. Between the congressional election results and the exit strategy from Iraq being devised by the forceful diplomat James Baker, Bush could decide that on second thought, maybe Israel and Syria ought to sit down and try to settle their differences. Right away. WHAT WOULD Olmert say to that? He'd say, "Yes, sir." And Assad and everybody else would understand that Israel, as it had done under Rabin, Barak and Netanyahu, was offering Syria the Golan Heights in return for peace. And then masses of Israelis who once hoped for such an agreement, but who have since soured on the possibility of peace with Syria or anybody else in the Middle East, would start to hope again. The national depression, the fatalistic gloom, the surrender to war, I think, would start to lift. As I've written before, I'm pessimistic that Assad would be willing to give up his claim to water rights to Lake Kinneret, which doomed the 2000 peace negotiations with his father. I'm not the only Israeli who's pessimistic, either. But we may be wrong. And I'm convinced we have to take the chance that we're wrong, and meet Syria at the negotiating table, because Israelis cannot go on living with nothing but war and the expectation of war indefinitely. Although it is a comfortable life, in a grim way - you don't have to be in doubt whether your enemy is ready for peace or not, because you've decided he isn't. You don't have to agonize whether Israel should bomb away or restrain itself, because you've decided restraint is suicidal. One thing about resigning yourself to a life of war and hatred - you don't have much stress. You don't get surprised, you don't have to change, you don't have to risk the unknown. But you're left with a life of war and hatred. So something's got to give. The Syrian regime is secular; its alliances with Hizbullah and Iran grow out of political convenience, not ideology; it has kept the cease-fire on the Golan for three decades; it has talked to Israel before and is seemingly eager to do so again. Maybe it's a bluff. Maybe negotiations would fail like they did the first time. But with the IDF predicting war with Syria next summer, what do we have to lose? Nothing but our despair.