Someone, I forget who, once said that crises give birth to new opportunities. If that is so, then the megacrisis we are living through should give birth to a mega-opportunity. The New Middle East of Condoleezza Rice may yet prove to be more real than the New Middle East of Shimon Peres. For this to happen, our leaders will have to think big, and go for the whole kitty. And the international community, with the United States in the lead, will have to give them their full backing.
For starters, we should be demanding a second international "Madrid" peace conference to regulate our relations with our northern neighbors and to reactivate the multi-national groupings created after the first "Madrid."
The joker in the Middle Eastern pack of cards is Syria - negative, autocratic, dictatorial Syria, ally of Iran, supporter of Hizbullah, seemingly the last country in the world to deal with, except perhaps through the barrel of a gun.
Syrian President Bashar Assad is a dictator, yet for us in Israel a secular dictator is preferable to a democratically elected fundamentalist Muslim fanatic. He is one of the three ultra-weak leaders who are impinging on our present strategic situation - Palestinian Mahmoud Abbas, Lebanese Fuad Saniora and Bashar Assad. In the past few years, his weakness was considered sufficient reason not to deal with him. "Why should we negotiate with the Syrians and give up territory when they are too weak to threaten us?" was the understandable reasoning behind our refusal to answer Bashar's repeated offers to sit down with us and negotiate peace.
Syria is an integral part of our present problem in the North, but it could become part of the solution to that problem. It is the weak link in the Iranian-Syrian-Hizbullah axis. Without Syria, the Iranians would find it vastly more difficult to support its surrogate army in Lebanon. With Syria firmly in the axis, they can, through the Syrians, go a long way to undermining any agreement reached replacing the old order in south Lebanon with a multinational force. The international community will find it very difficult to establish such a force without at least the tacit agreement of Hizbullah, and its attitude will depend to a large extent on the stand taken by the Syrians. Weak as it is, Syria still has the capacity to throw a spanner in the works and make the aftermath to the fighting much more difficult for us.
Our refusal to have anything to do with the Syrians is, to a large extent, an extension of American policy towards Damascus. President Bush has, time and again, made it very clear that the Syrian regime is not his preferred flavor of the month. In his eyes, the Syrians aid and abet terror, and for him, very correctly so, there is no worse crime than that. Yet not so long ago the Libyans were in exactly the same situation, and today the Stars and Stripes fly proudly and defiantly over the newly reopened American Embassy in the Libyan capital.
The Syrians would dearly like to mend their fences with the Americans and emerge from their present isolation. They would have to pay a heavy price - close their frontier with Iraq, eject the Iraqi insurgents harboring inside Syria, expel Khaled Mashal and his cronies from Damascus, stop arming Hizbullah and cut their links with Teheran. A tall order? Not necessarily, especially not if it would help them to extricate themselves from the ongoing investigation into the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri. Their preferred route for reengaging the US is to start talking with Israel.
Should we? Can we pick up the Syrian gauntlet? Only within a package deal involving the United States, and Lebanon. The Americans must first be persuaded that prying Syria away from the clutches of Iran is an objective worth pursuing. The advantages for us are manifest: defusing the dangerous Iranian-led axis in the North, expelling the Hamas and Jihad extremists from Damascus, paving the way for relations with the rest of the Arab world. There is, of course, the Golan. Successive prime ministers, including Binyamin Netanyahu, had been willing to compromise our position on the Golan for the sake of peace with Syria. Future negotiations with the weak Assad could probably produce better results for us than previous efforts.
As we enter the last stages of this present war, we must face the challenge of the political and diplomatic aftermath and make sure that we are not, yet once more, in a situation where we win military battles but lose the political ones coming in their wake. The fighting that Hizbullah provoked is creating an opportunity for change, providing we think big and know what to demand. Let us not miss this opportunity.
The writer is a former director-general of the Foreign Ministry.