I was wrong and I admit it. Three times in the past three years I wrote articles in favor of a peace treaty between Israel and Syria. I wrote, based on numerous conversations with senior security officials, that Israel can achieve peace with Assad’s regime in exchange for willingness to withdraw from the Golan Heights, whose security significance has become dubious, if not wholly non-existent.
While making this argument, I did not take into account the Damascus regime’s tyrannical character. I fooled myself. Even when Assad won 98% of the vote in the last elections I did not wake up and say: We must not make peace with this man. I believed in peace so much to the point of being blinded to reality.
I should have seen reality. As one who researched and wrote about the fall of tyrannical regimes, I should have realized that Arab affairs experts are wrong, just like Soviet experts were wrong before them. The people of Aleppo are no different than the people in Gdansk. Both want to live as free men, and the thirst for freedom is like the thirst for water: It has no substitute. Sooner or later, it overflows and brings down any dam.
Nikita Khrushchev appeared to be a decent statesman, until he sent his tanks to repress Hungarian democracy. Leonid Brezhnev appeared to be a level-headed and rational dialogue partner, until he too sent tanks to repress democracy in Czechoslovakia, and later in Afghanistan. Those reaching out to tyrants were wrong, and former American president, the late Ronald Reagan, was right: One must not make peace with the empire of evil.
Benjamin Netanyahu was also right in his first speech before the two houses of Congress in Washington on July 10, 1996, when he said that viable peace between Israel and its neighbors is impossible without Arab world democracy. The time has come to place the issues of democratization and human rights at the top of the Middle East’s agenda, Bibi said at the time. He added that while Israel can make peace with non-democratic Arab states, it will not be full-fledged peace and will rely on restrictive security arrangements.
Peace for generations can only be made with democratic regimes that honor human rights.
However, the absence of democracy and tyrannical rule in the Arab world does not legitimize our continued control over another people and land that does not belong to us. The end of the occupation is a national and strategic interest for Israel and it is not an abstract notion. It is very practical and depends on the question of who our peace partner is. I forgot this historic lesson when I voiced unqualified support for a deal with the murderer Assad.
Would Israel’s current situation be worse with an Israeli embassy in Damascus and the Golan Heights mostly under Syrian sovereignty? I believe so. In that case, the Syrian rebellion would have taken a radical anti-Israel shape. The oppression and massacre by Assad’s troops against his own citizens would have been perceived as a means to enforce the peace deal. A new regime – and after all, such regime will eventually rise in Damascus – would have annulled such treaty at once.
In this respect, we should be looking at Egypt. Even though Mubarak was not toppled because of his (weak) hold on the peace treaty with Israel, and while peace did not play a key role in the revolutionary discourse, the belligerent attitude to Israel on the part of some of Egypt’s free media has been reinforced ever since democracy won. As result of the incitement, only about half of Egyptians support the peace treaty in public opinion polls.
A peace treaty with Assad would have fully collapsed a day after the Assad regime collapsed.
I am not writing on behalf of Israel’s leftist camp. I was not authorized to do so. I am writing on behalf of myself: I need to engage in some self-reflection. I need to remind myself and not forget, as I did indeed forget, the following principle: A dictator is a dictator is a dictator, and peace with him would always be handicapped, flawed, and unstable. Peace with such tyrant is immoral, undesirable and dangerous for Israel.