The way to approach talks with Syria

Israel must respond to Syrian diplomatic overtures and bring a checklist of preconditions to the table.

assad 298.88 ap (photo credit: AP [file])
assad 298.88 ap
(photo credit: AP [file])
The current position of the Olmert government, that it refuses to open negotiations with Syria, is unprecedented and totally unacceptable. Israeli governments have a duty to pursue peace negotiations even if their success is unlikely. As heads of a nation at arms, Israeli governments must be able to honestly say that the wars their country wages are fully justified - either because all peace negotiations were explored, or because strategic circumstances warranted Israeli military action to prevent future threats. Israel's citizenry, too, which bears those arms, must be convinced that its leadership is not acting callously in sending soldiers and reservists forth to endanger their lives in battle, but is constantly trying to reach a modus vivendi with its neighbors. Having said that, however, such an approach must be realistic and cautious, aware of media spins and PR maneuvers. Since for years the Arabs have been committed to the destruction of the Jewish state, any declarations advocating peace with Israel must be checked for sincerity, as well as for the ability of the Arab actors to deliver on their promises. Moreover, Israel should learn lessons from its negotiations with its other neighbors. ISRAEL NEEDS to emulate president Richard Nixon's approach to the Soviet promises for arms control. His motto was "Trust, but verify." This approach rings just as true for Syrian talks. The peace noises coming from Damascus should be seriously examined, despite the fact that Syria has for years used the "peace process" as a shield against what the Syrians fear in a unipolar world - "American or Israeli military aggression." The fear that the US will unleash Israel against a Syria that does not cooperate with it in Lebanon and Iraq and is aligned with Iran continues to resonate strongly in Damascus's political calculus. It is quite improbable that Syria, which has had plenty of opportunities to make peace with Israel and defect from its alliance with an Iran-led coalition, will suddenly change course and leave the radical camp. This scenario is even more unlikely after the Israeli defeat in Lebanon and the growing influence of Iran and Hizbullah in the region. Nevertheless, the intentions of Assad junior vis-a-vis Israel should be tested. Israel should therefore issue a statement welcoming any declaration that mentions recognition of Israel and peaceful relations, and enumerate a set of guidelines for its enemies when considering a change in their position toward the Jewish state. A CLEAR indication of Damascus's seriousness in making peace with Israel would be halting any assistance to terrorist groups that carry out violent attacks against Israeli targets. This means Damascus closing down the headquarters of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other Palestinian rejectionist organizations and ending its arming of Hizbullah. Israel should not tolerate a strategy of "talk and bleed," unless Israel is engaged in "bleeding" as well. Such intolerance characterized the Turkish policy toward Damascus, which hosted the PKK Kurdish terrorist group and its leader Mustafa Ocalan. Syria eventually gave in to Turkish military superiority and determination, leading to the closure of the PKK offices and the eviction of Ocalan. Only after the Turkish conditions were met did relations between Ankara and Damascus improve. Similarly, the Syrian leadership should clarify the type of peace it has in mind. After all, Israel ended up with a "cold peace" with Egypt and an Egyptian education system continuing to seed hate against Israel. The lesson from the peace negotiations with Egypt and the Palestinians is that the real test of intentions is not what the Arabs say to Israel and Western World, but what they say to their children. Are the Syrians ready to clean their textbooks of hatred against Israel? Since Israel is expected to give up important strategic assets, it must be convinced that a new generation of Syrians will see Israel in a different light. Education reform is, therefore, a precondition for peace negotiations. AN ISSUE usually neglected by analysts is the 400,000 Palestinian refugees living in Syria. The official position of the Syrian regime advocates the refugees' "right of return," which would inundate Israel with Arabs and demographically end the Jewish character of the state. Peace with Israel while insisting on the right of return is an unacceptable diplomatic oxymoron. Taking right of return off the negotiating table is thus a second necessary precondition. Syria deserves to be treated seriously and Syrians, as well as the Israeli public, should know that Israel's leadership is committed to long-term peace. This is precisely why Israel must respond to Syrian diplomatic overtures and bring a checklist of preconditions to the table. Peace can be made with enemies when they are no longer considered as such. Israel should encourage its foes to find ways to demonstrate that they have given up their enmity toward it. The author is professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University and the director of the Begin-Sadat (BESA) Center for Strategic Studies.