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Friday, December 22, 2006

Putting Assad to the test

Putting Assad to the test
By Ze'ev Schiff

All of Israel's prime ministers, starting with Yitzhak Shamir, engaged in contacts with Syria. At first Yitzhak Shamir did not believe the intelligence assessment, which said that a significant change was taking place in Syria leading up to the Madrid Conference. The head of Military Intelligence at the time, Uri Saguy, offered to show him the raw material as proof, and Shamir was convinced. Yitzhak Rabin agreed to place a "deposit" in the hands of the U.S. secretary of state at the time, Warren Christopher, in the form of territorial concessions in the Golan. Shimon Peres' representatives then met with the Syrians at the Wye Plantation. Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak also held equally unproductive meetings.
The statement "all the prime ministers" is meant to emphasize something yet unpublicized: the fact that Ariel Sharon also had secret contacts with the Syrians. In 2004, his representatives held secret meetings with the Syrians in Switzerland. The secret file that held the related documents was called "the Swiss file." These talks apparently began when a third party important to Israel proposed they be held and made arrangements. These talks did not take off either; Sharon understood the price being demanded of him and was opposed.
A year earlier, in 2003, Sharon torpedoed the contacts that then-foreign minister Silvan Shalom opened (through Eitan Bentzur, then director general of the Foreign Ministry) with the Syrian president's brother and sister in Jordan. The war in Iraq began at the time, and Sharon proposed postoning the talks by one month. The details were leaked, apparently by his office, and that marked the end of the meetings. Today Shalom says Syrian President Bashar Assad's proposals should be rejected because a meeting with him would mean a severe blow to the moderate Arab countries. However, anyone interested in the honor of these countries should be promoting talks with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen). The problem is that Israel is saying "no" both to Abu Mazen and to Bashar Assad.
One of the explanations given for rejecting talks with Syria is based on the claim that President George W. Bush is asking Israel not to hold them, because of the Syrians' behavior vis-a-vis Iraq and Lebanon and because of their support for Palestinian terror. However, it must be recalled that another voice is being heard in the United States - that of the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group, which recommends opening contacts with Syria. Israel must therefore take into account that it could find itself in a situation in which Washington is holding talks with Damascus and Israel is out in the hallway. What will we say then?
The Baker-Hamilton group is not giving in to Damascus easily. Attention should be paid to their recommendations. After leveling criticism at Syria for transfering weapons to Hezbollah and supporting radical Palestinians groups, the study group emphasizes that no U.S. administration will abandon Israel. It states that Damascus must obey United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701 and stop supplying arms to Hezbollah, including transfering weapons from Iran to Lebanon. Syria must intervene with Hezbollah and Hamas for the release of the kidnapped Israeli soldiers, stop supplying arms to Hamas and try to convince the organization to recognize Israel's right to exist. What's wrong with these conditions for talks with Syria?
Israel has an additional interest. For years it has been claimed here that an agreement with Syria would constitute a buffer between Israel and a nuclear Iran. This must be a strategic goal. For that reason, apparently, Major General (res.) Uri Saguy, who has conducted many of the talks with Syria, says that accepting the invitation to talks with Damascus is not only desirable, but vital. Syria is not, in essence, party to the extremist bloc of Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas, which calls for Israel's destruction. And it we'd be better off not pushing them there. It may be that the chances of productive talks with Syria are not great, but Bashar Assad should be put to the test. Why shouldn't Olmert invite him to Jerusalem, or offer to travel to Damascus? A test of that kind would not harm Israel.

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