Playing Syria's game

Assad is eager for Israel to "call his bluff" and accept his offer. What does Israel have to lose?

assad 298.88 ap (photo credit: AP [file])
assad 298.88 ap
(photo credit: AP [file])
Why does a state of war exist between Syria and Israel? One might say its because Israel holds the Golan Heights. But the state of war predated our presence on the Golan. Indeed, if it were not for Syria's attempts to destroy Israel, we would not be on the Golan. Perhaps, though, Syria has had a change of heart. After all, President Bashar Assad is reportedly eager for Israel to "call his bluff" and accept his offer to negotiate without preconditions. What does Israel have to lose from saying yes? Our answer should be: Yes, Israel has always wanted peace with Syria, as we have always wanted peace with all our neighbors. War was never Israel's idea; we have not had a day of peace since our state was established, and we continue to work and pray for that day to come. Our prime minister, it need hardly be stressed, should and would respond with alacrity were Syria's president to publicly signal a dramatic shift in mindset and declare a readiness to meet with him, in Jerusalem or Damascus. But what if what Syria really wants is to talk to Israel, at a lower and nonbinding level, while continuing to host Hamas and other terrorists dedicated to our destruction, and to funnel weapons to Hizbullah, which has the same goal? What if Syria has no intention of ending its attacks, let alone making a full peace, but is simply seeking to stave off UN sanctions in the wake of its assassination campaign against anti-Syrian Lebanese leaders, including Rafik Hariri and Pierre Gemayel? Our answer should be what it has been to the Palestinians: We do not negotiate under fire. If you want peace, stop making war. Some say the problem with such a stance is that Assad may not be bluffing, and might be serious about peace. And even if he is not, why should we look like the bad guys? We should, indeed, be very careful not to miss an opportunity to negotiate peace. But if Assad is not willing to stop instigating terrorism against us even for a moment, what reason do we have to believe that he really is offering peace? What is the "opportunity" that we are missing? There is no point in coming to a "peace" table when the other side arrives with his sword drawn. It would also be a mistake to consider this matter outside of its international context. Yes, the US and Israel have an interest in breaking Syria away from the Iranian axis and ending Syrian support for terrorism in Gaza, Lebanon and Iraq. But the Syrian regime will only cease its international aggression when it determines that such actions no longer pay, and have begun to endanger its hold on power. This is the conclusion that Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi evidently came to just after the capture of Saddam Hussein, and after years of punishing UN sanctions. He invited inspectors to dismantle Libya's nuclear program and declared a complete end to his support for terrorism, all in exchange for normal relations with the international community. Assad is trying to rid himself of international pressure much more cheaply. In Syria's case, chances are that "peace" talks, far from bringing an end to aggression, would be a substitute for abandoning terrorism. Why drop support for terrorism when international pressure can be relieved by temporary and meaningless gestures? Syria, of course, can always prove the skeptics wrong. There are innumerable steps it could take to begin to signal a true change, and innumerable back channels it could use to begin asserting any such shift. Again, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert should say he would be happy to meet with Assad in Jerusalem or Damascus any time he wants. If Assad really wants peace, what has he got to lose? If he turns down Israel's offer, it will be obvious that his peace offensive is just a stunt. If he agrees, it would be a meeting that no Israeli leader could refuse. In the meantime, the primary lesson from Assad's overtures is that the pressure is working and should be increased, not defused. Again, if there is a real opportunity for peace, Syria will be willing to take meaningful steps to achieve it. If not, then the real opportunity lies in imposing on Syria the level of costs that produced real results in the case of Libya, and remain urgently necessary against Iran, as well.