"You have nothing to lose, said the spider to the fly"
, someone commented in reaction to the recent peace offers from Syria to Israel, and especially Assad's call
to "Talk to Syria, and like many Israelis are saying, 'even if you think it's a bluff you have nothing to lose.'"
Of course Israel does have something to lose, something more than a nice piece of land where about 20,000 Israelis live and many tourists visit. On the Golan, you have a strategic overview over the low-level Galilee, and control over some tributaries that supply the Jordan river. If given back to Syria, the Golan can be used as a base from which to shell the entire eastern Galilee. This is a nightmare scenario to many Israelis who remember the shelling of villages and Kibbutzim in the valley from the Golan before 1967.
Nonetheless, many Israelis advocate negotiations with Syria. They also cite security considerations, as only peace with Syria could provide security on Israel's northern border and peace with Lebanon. Syria's foreign minister promised Israel the latter in an interview with David Ignatius
of the Washington Post. Moreover, not responding to Syria's overtures may lead to another war, and president Assad has hinted at the possibility that Syria will attempt to retake the Golan by war if diplomatic efforts fail. Some Israelis point to Golda Meir's refusal to respond to Egyptian president Sadat's overtures in the early 1970s, and the subsequent Yom Kippur war, which forced Israel to make peace on much less favorable conditions than would have been possible before. On the other hand, Syria seems to think that it is already talking from a position of strength, as it views the recent Lebanon war as an Israeli defeat, and shows remarkably greater self-confidence than it did before. Israel should show no signs of weakness in that regard, and make clear that the only chance for Syria to regain the Golan is indeed by negotiating and offering real peace in return.
The question is whether there is a serious chance that Syria is willing or able to offer full peace in return for the Golan. Intelligence officials indicate otherwise
"A diplomatic source in Jerusalem said intelligence officials, including those who support talks with Syria, agree that Syria will not sever ties with Iran, Hezbollah and Palestinian terror organizations even if Israel returns the Golan Heights. Olmert believes the threat of war will only increase if Israel's demands are not met."
However, "Israeli military officials said at the weekend that they believe the Syrian proposals should be examined carefully and not dismissed out of hand."
It is worth giving up the Golan for real peace. That would include the end of Syrian support of Hezbollah and Hamas, and security guarantees like early warning stations and a demilitarized Golan, although the exact borders remain open to debate, as part of the area was captured by Syria in 1948. The negotiations between Syria and Israel broke down in 1999 because Syria refused to accept that Israel would keep a tiny strip between the lake of Tiberias and the Golan.
But beyond border quibbles, one may ask if real peace should not involve a bit more. The above may sound like extraordinary Israeli demands, but they are no more than quite minimalistic guarantees not to be attacked in the future. Hezbollah, Hamas, and also Syrian officials have repeatedly denied Israel's right to exist and have called the whole country 'occupied Palestine'. Syria has recently intensified its ties with Iran, which organized a conference on Holocaust denial
last week and repeated its desire that Israel be wiped off the map. Syria did not denounce the conference or the threats in any way. A potential peace partner, who wants to win Israeli trust, could be expected to have condemned such obviously hostile and racist acts.
In my opinion, a peace treaty should, besides a real recognition of the right of the Jewish people to statehood in Israel, also involve a full stop to the anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist incitement that is quite common in Syrian (state-controlled) media. As Israel does not deny Syria's right to exist, does not incite against Syrians or their right to statehood, and does not support and host organizations who commit violence against Syria, Israel has a bit more to demand for achieving peace than does Syria.
Unwillingness to give up the Golan should never be a reason not to make peace with Syria, but Israel should play hard ball in order to get all the above in exchange for the Golan, and it deserves support from the international community to achieve this.
Probably the best approach is a staged withdrawal over some years
, depending on how much peace Syria gives in return. Or, as Rabin said: "The depth of the withdrawal will be equal to the depth of the peace"
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