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Peace in Our Time With Syria?

It’s popular in certain circles in Israel and the Diaspora to point out how impossible is the notion of making peace between Israel and her Arab neighbors. You hear it from the Likud. You hear it from the likes of … Read More

By / August 2, 2007

It’s popular in certain circles in Israel and the Diaspora to point out how impossible is the notion of making peace between Israel and her Arab neighbors. You hear it from the Likud. You hear it from the likes of AIPAC and the American Jewish Committee. There are a thousand reasons, so the argument goes, why an Arab could never make a suitable partner for peace. Prominent among these perfidious partners is Syria. Everyone knows that the Assad regime is a bunch of thugs who assassinated Rafik Hariri. Besides they’re untrustworthy, support Hezbollah, shelter Hamas operatives, and call themselves brother to the even more perfidious Iran. No, it’s hopeless. There can never be peace with Syria. Except there’s one small fault with this argument: it’s wrong on the most important counts. A senior former Israeli foreign ministry staffer met for months with a Syrian-American confidant of the Assad regime and basically ironed out most of the issues that separated the parties. At first, Ehud Olmert pooh-poohed the effort saying Alon Liel, the former foreign ministry director general, represented no one but himself (even though Liel negotiated with the knowledge and approval of the Sharon government). Then Olmert said Israel couldn’t take the negotiations seriously because the Bush Administration had put the kibosh on the whole thing. That made Olmert look like an American marionette. There have been news reports saying the U.S. released Israel to pursue further discussions with the Syrians though Israel has said or done nothing to confirm this. And that is where things stand now. Two recent developments breath hope and substance into the Syria-Israel peace track. Haaretz reveals a recent poll of Syrians by Terror Free Tomorrow finds that 51% are in favor of peace with Israel in return for mutual recognition and return of the Golan. So much for those who claim that the Syrians would be an untrustworthy partner who doesn’t even want peace. Polls show a majority of Israelis also favor Syrian negotiations. Don’t get me wrong. There are as many reasons for Israel to distrust Syria as there are for Syria to distrust Israel. The only way to test an opposing party’s good faith is to sit down and talk to them. Thus far, the Olmert government has refused to do this. But now there may be reasons to believe that hardened attitudes are beginning to shift. Last January, a group of prominent Israelis formed a new lobby, the National Movement for Peace With Syria, to pressure Israel to take the Syria peace track more seriously. The new group included former chief of staff Amnon Lipkin Shahak, former Shin Bet chief, Ya’akov Perry and former directors at the Foreign Ministry, David Kimche and Alon Liel. Ynet reports that the group recently went right into the lion’s den to hold a public forum on the Israeli-Syrian peace diplomacy IN THE GOLAN which was attended by “hundreds of Golan residents.” You may dispute the legitimacy of a group of self-appointed peaceniks, but the fact that Ami Ayalon and Alon Liel presented the National Movement’s agenda to a group of Israelis who have the most to lose in a future peace settlement and received a respectful hearing says a great deal about the viability of peace with Syria. In fact these same Golanis have signed the following statement:

“President Assad has repeatedly declared his willingness to renew the negotiations for peace with Israel,” it says. “The Israeli government has rejected these calls, but in recent months has checked their authenticity with the help of a third party. “We call on President Bush and Tony Blair to facilitate the negotiations with American presence or representation from the Quartet. We believe such talks could remove the threat of the missiles that are currently flowing from Iran into Syria by the thousands and may soon land on our heads.”

Will Ehud Olmert and his new Labor partner, Ehud Barak, listen to this voice of pragmatism and vigorously pursue the chance for peace with Syria? Stay tuned.

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