Syrian President Bashar Assad is repeatedly calling on Israel to engage in peace talks. In recent days he added that he has no preconditions for entering such talks - Assad is not even demanding the return of the Golan Heights as a precondition.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert gave an extraordinary response to Assad's overture: Engaging in dialogue with Syria at this time would be "against the position of (US President) George Bush, Israel's greatest friend," who is not interested in a peace agreement between Israel and Syria. Thus, Israel is rejecting Syria's outstretched hand.
There were times when Israel still behaved as if it were an independent State rather than an American protégé, and when direct negotiations without preconditions were at the heart of Israel's Mideast policies. David Ben Gurion, Moshe Sharet, Levi Eshkol, Yitzhak Rabin and Menachem Begin all urged the Arab nations to sit with us at the negotiating table without any preconditions on either side. The various demands made by the two sides, as stated by Israel for years, could be clarified during the negotiation process itself. This is no longer the case.
In response to the Syrian proposal, it is now Israel that is stipulating a series of preconditions: Expel Hamas leadership from its territory; sever its ties with Hizbullah; disengage from Iran and cease military build up opposite the Golan Heights – Israel is demanding all this prior to engaging in talks.
And if Syria does indeed fulfill these preconditions in full, Israel would have no reason to negotiate with Syria over the future of the Golan Heights. In fact, Syria's acceptance of all Israel's preconditions would make peace with Syria unnecessary.
In 1967, in wake of the Syrian attack, Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syrian hands. Since then, Syria has not ceased demanding that Israel return the Heights, while Israel has demanded peace, recognition and cessation of hostilities.
We've been there before
Now Israel is setting a precondition that Syria give it all it has, even before convening at the negotiating table. This is a baseless demand. Even more groundless is Israel's reasoning for rejecting the Syrian overture, namely, we must not engage in talks with Syria less we burden President Bush with his internal US debate regarding Middle Eastern affairs.
Why is Israel interfering in internal issues between American hawks and doves? Why should Israel have to delay a supreme national interest – peace with all its neighbors – in favor of pleasantness or unpleasantness in its relations with a foreign government?
Primarily, however, this is the first time an Israeli prime minister has admitted and has even boasted that the fate of an Israeli national priority lies in foreign hands.
On the eve of the Yom Kippur War former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat proposed a peace agreement with the Israeli government in exchange for the return of the Sinai. Golda Meir's destitute government ignored the proposal with similar arguments to those now being used by Olmert's cabinet to justify its refusal for engaging in talks with Syria.
A total of 2,700 Israeli soldiers were killed, and thousands were wounded in the Yom Kippur War, in wake of which Israel accepted the same proposal made by Sadat prior to the war: Land for peace.
Have we really not learned anything?