The peace threat from Damascus

Posted in Israel / Palestine | 15-Dec-03 | Author: Ze'ev Schiff| Source: Ha'aretz

The most astounding thing about the Syrian president's proposal to resume talks with Israel is the response of official Israel. It may have good reason to put question marks beside Bashar Assad, but its reply also raises big questions. Is Israel really interested in achieving peace with its neighbor to the north?

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has remained silent. Not a word has been heard from him on the offer of peace talks raised by an extreme Arab state. In the past, we always hoped for such proposals. Sharon has not even made a non-committal comment - the same way he behaved when Saudi Arabia's proposal came for the first time, before it had evolved into an initiative of the Arab League.

Unidentified but known sources in Jerusalem have begun to churn out excuses - like "Israel is unable to conduct negotiations on two fronts at once." One might think Israel is actually doing this on one front. Instead of arguing that Israel is now busy with contacts with the
Palestinians and finds it difficult to turn its attention to the Syrian track, the sources should have been accurate and said that Israel is busy looking for ways to evade real
negotiations with the Palestinians.

Another excuse has been offered as a pre-condition to Syria - it must first cease its support for terror. Israel itself quite rightly does not like pre-conditions imposed on its own side. Israel saw even the Syrian comment that negotiations should begin from where they stopped during Hafez Assad's lifetime as a pre-condition.

Israel, as noted, is suspicious of Bashar Assad, suspecting that Damascus directly supports terror and is equipping the Hezbollah. There is the argument that the offices of Islamic Jihad are not information offices as Assad avers, but operational headquarters for planning terror attacks on Israel.

However, it is known that Bashar Assad has said things similar to what he told The New York Times about talks with Israel at the military academy in Damascus, where he said that his father embarked on negotiations with Israel and that this is a strategic decision.

Israel has already proven that when necessary it knows how to respond to Syria's support for terror - as it did in October when it attacked a Palestinian training camp in Syria in response to the terror attack at the Maxim Restaurant in Haifa. Now Israel must prove that it also knows how to respond to offers to talk.

The only ray of light in Israel's response was the statement by Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, but this was half a step. He did not respond negatively to Assad's proposal, but he did not really respond in the affirmative either with an immediate invitation to talks, as prime minister Menachem Begin did when Egyptian president Anwar Sadat made his proposal.

It seems the foreign minister was cautious because he did not know how the prime minister would react and also because he feared - without cause - that the United States would oppose a positive Israeli response to the Syrian suggestion while it is in confrontation with Syria over other issues, including its support for terror.

In the opinion of American sources familiar with the thinking in the administration, it would have responded positively to an Israeli acceptance of Assad's proposal. The United States is not looking in principle for a military confrontation with Damascus and is ready to let Assad get onto a positive track.

Despite the suspicions, Israel should have responded immediately and positively to Assad and should have expressed a willingness to renew negotiations. It should have picked up the gauntlet tossed in its direction and said there are various issues to be discussed - including terror and the activities of Hezbollah.

It should have coordinated the movement with Washington, just as it does on the Palestinian issue and above all, it should not avoid engaging with the Syrians in parallel to what is being done - or not being done - on the Palestinian front.

The Palestinians have to know - as they were told in the Saudi initiative - that they are not the only player in the Middle Eastern game with Israel. Israel ought to have a strategic interest in an agreement with the Syrians. Even if this is a Syrian maneuver, it is necessary to respond to it and not to stand stuttering in response to the proposal from President Assad.