There is plenty of hypocrisy in recent declarations regarding the influence of the American position on the possibility of Israeli-Syrian talks. Commentators and writers wonder whether Israel has turned into a "banana republic," because it takes into account the position articulated by the Bush Administration, which views Syria as an integral part of the terror-sponsoring "axis of evil."
Would those same commentators respond similarly had the Administration announced an about-face and adopted the Baker-Hamilton report, which requires a full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights?
Would we also be hearing complaints that Israel has become an American satellite, or would we have heard words of praise for Washington's new approach? One way or another, it would be worthwhile to look into Israel's interests in talks with Syria, while putting aside for the time being the argument over the Golan's future.
Israel has already accumulated vast experience during the 1990s when it comes to engaging in talks under fire, both with the Palestinians (under the shadow of terror attacks committed by Hamas and other groups) and with the Syria (despite Hizbullah's attacks.)
These diplomatic contacts failed to bring about a stable agreement and even led to escalation on both fronts – operation "Grapes of Wrath" in Lebanon and the outbreak of the second Intifada following the Camp David failure.
One of the views articulated these days is that Israeli-Syrian negotiations are essential in order to prevent a war in the coming summer that would include the launching of Syrian missiles at the heart of Israel. However, we already witnessed the opposite, that is, how the failure of diplomatic contacts only boosts the pressure on the Arab side to adopt belligerent moves. We cannot reject this scenario based on past experience.
The history of the diplomatic process shows that, according to our experience with Egypt, a stable agreement is ensured first and foremost by securing quiet between Israel and its neighbors as a precondition to substantive talks. The Egyptian regime under Sadat's leadership agreed on a ceasefire and two disengagement agreements with Israel before the president visited Jerusalem.
At the time, Cairo was not home to terror organizations' headquarters, and terrorists did not cross the border in order to carry out attacks, as was the case in the 1950s. Today too, Israel must ensure that Syria first dismantles terror groups and training camps in its territory, thus proving both to Israel and the US that it is serious in its desire to reach peace.
There are of course those who ask, what does Israel have to lose should it engage in talks with Syria in order to test the seriousness of its intentions? We must recall that photos from the negotiations would be used as a "kosher certificate" for Damascus in the eyes of the international community, at a time when Washington is making an effort to create a coalition that would press Syria to change its conduct towards Iraq, Lebanon, and the Palestinians.
Had Israel engaged in talks, it would have undermined this diplomatic effort and hindered the ability to receive anything substantive from the Syrians in exchange. It's clear that from an Israeli viewpoint, such move would be akin to shooting ourselves in the foot.
The prime minister could have offered a better response to the criticism regarding "American dictates" had he just explained his position on talks with Syria based on Israeli interests alone, instead of premising his message on George W. Bush's position.
Dr. Dore Gold is Israel's former UN ambassador and currently heads the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs