Olmert's bureau raced yesterday to deny any connection, even a passive one, to the talks that took place in Europe on the Israel-Syrian conflict. Associates of Ariel Sharon, who, according to the report, was aware of the secret negotiations, did the same. The insulted added their voices to the deniers: A senior minister told Israel Radio that he is privy to all secret diplomatic moves and if he was not party to this, then there was nothing to be party to. And MK Yuval Steinitz said that he had spoken at the time with Sharon, who told him he ruled out any relationship with the present Syrian regime because of its ties to terror. A united front of deniers emerged, as if on command, to clarify that the Israeli government was not involved nor is it tainted by an attempt to come to an arrangement with Bashar Assad.
This is a ludicrous spectacle, the irony of which fades in light of its depressing significance: Israel's leaders are trying hard to prove to its citizens that they are not involved in a move to end 60 years of hostility with its Syrian neighbor. These leaders are kowtowing to residents of the Golan Heights, the settlers and the American government. The desire to mollify them seems to be the government's top priority; otherwise, it is impossible to understand the complete and utter denial of the efforts reported by Eldar. It is as if Olmert decided that a confession on his part to any involvement in a channel of communication with Assad is politically lethal.
The contours of the reported arrangement should be studied and discussed widely by the public. For the first time in six years the public is being presented with an alternative to the hostile situation with Syria. Whether the understandings were purely hypothetical, stemming from non-binding talks among a few naive individuals, or whether the government of Sharon and Olmert had been informed of them, they are an important matter that should be addressed, not turned away from. A high barrier of fear, enmity, and substantive disagreements and prejudices separates Israel and Syria. These component parts of the conflict require treatment, clarification and compromise; this may or may not be attainable, and that is the very purpose of negotiations. The Israeli public has the right to demand that its government try to reach an agreement with Damascus.
Preserving the status quo will necessarily lead to armed conflict. The assumption that Syria will forever accept the occupation of the Golan is an illusion that will be shattered some day in a bloody war. Israel's ability to stand strong, on which its deterrence effect is based, can ensure the state's existence only when it is a peace-seeker; but this ability atrophies when its entire purpose is to perpetuate the occupation. Despite differences in regimes and political culture, Israel has managed to establish peaceful relations with Egypt and Jordan; therefore, it should not cling to these difference to get out of negotiations with Syria. Official Israel is behaving this way to avoid paying the price of peace - giving up the Golan. But in unofficial Israel there is a substantial public that prefers peace over territories.