Sever Plocker
Suddenly Syria
What used to be real diplomatic option has become empty political gesture

After the end of the military operation that was eventually named the "Second Lebanon War," I conducted a series of talks with senior IDF and Defense Ministry officials. The topic of discussion was the defense budget's requirements and the connection - or the lack of it - to the budgetary cutbacks and the shortcoming exposed during the war.


My interlocutors, however, steered me towards a completely different direction: The chances of peace with Syria. A senior defense official, who has since become even more senior, used particularly harsh words in his criticism of the Olmert administration's refusal to engage in dialogue with the Syrians; he called it "a national crime" and an "infinite tragedy."


But others also relayed the same message: Peace with Syria is achievable; a basic framework for an agreement was signed during the Barak-al-Ahara talks at the beginning of 2000, but wasn't implemented due to internal concerns, primarily by the Israelis.


Peace with Syria was also supported by past and present military, defense and political figures deemed "doves." Some accused Barak of

evading an agreement with Syria due to the Israeli media, which extensively reported that the Syrian foreign minister refused to shake hands with the Israeli prime minister in public - but ignored the far-reaching flexibility demonstrated by the Syrians on every topic, as noted by Ambassador Dennis Ross in his book "The Missing Peace." It is the duty of the Olmert cabinet, defense officials told me, to address this issue.


Waiting for new Israeli government

Inspired by the talks, I wrote here last year: "Almost the entire political echelon in Israel advocates engaging in talks with Syria and is prepared to live with its consequences. This is the greatest national decision that has fallen on the Olmert cabinet's doorstep - a peace deal with Syria will strike a heavy blow at the incumbent regime in Teheran and its nuclear and belligerent ambitions, and will bring its demise closer.


An Israeli-Syrian peace agreement would pull the rug from beneath the feet of Damascus-based terror organizations, assist the Palestinians in reinstating their sanity, and serve to leverage comprehensive Israeli-Arab peace."


These words were written without hope. The prime minister and senior cabinet ministers shirked any thought of negotiations with the Syrians. They were preoccupied with preventing a commission of inquiry into the Lebanon war and in inventing an alternative political agenda in response to the wave of criticism that swept the country.


Yet most importantly, the threat of dissolving the government came from right-wing benches in those days, which tended to join those calling on Olmert and Amir Peretz to step down. The Right couldn't be irked even by the mention of the word "Syria."


Almost an entire year has elapsed and what has changed? The level of the Syrian army's preparedness for war is still very low. Even the Syrian leadership's willingness to become entangled in a preemptive war is almost naught. Neither of us are in 1967 or 1973. Comparisons are unfounded and misleading. The intelligence branches' evaluation of the situation hasn't changed either: Its chiefs called on Olmert two months ago to position the Syrian issue at the top of the political agenda; they were rejected in contempt but didn't let up on their attempts of persuasion.


And there's more. The last thing the regime in Teheran, Syria's only large ally, needs right now is an Israeli-Syrian military entanglement. A military flare up in the Golan Heights may provide Israel the legitimacy to attack the nuclear facilities in Iran.


The sudden interest Olmert is showing in Syria this summer has nothing to do with Syria. Following Peretz' ousting from the Labor party's leadership, the threat to the coalition's future has been diverted from Right to Left, and now the Left has to quickly be placated with something, so that its presence in the cabinet would be anchored in "a national necessity."


With what should it be placated? With talks about Syria, with a mix of peace proposals emanating faint echoes of war. And all this would be seasoned with a generous portion of leaks and denials and non-denials.


Let's be realistic: In its current composition the Olmert Administration is so weak, so temporary, so unpopular and unreliable that it is incapable of taking any substantial diplomatic move. A government with 15 percent public support couldn't move a single flower from a single community in the Golan Heights.


Can a cabinet whose days are numbered until publication of the complete Winograd report and which is perceived as being incapable of managing defense affairs (and which failed on the Sderot front) project the authority required to implement far-reaching strategic concessions? Would Olmert, who has four percent credibility among the public, dare opt for a referendum that would give Assad junior what Rabin, Netanyahu and Barak couldn't give his father?


What used to be a real diplomatic option in the past has become an empty political gesture in the present. Damascus is also aware of this, and has therefore ceased taking us seriously and is responding to our chatter, messages, signs, envoys and convoluted phrasings with a cold and insulting shrug of the shoulders. Damascus, just like Washington and Paris, is waiting for a new Israeli government to take up office.


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