Donald Macintyre: Is it time for Israel to start talking to Syria?

Proponents of talks argue it is up to Mr Olmert to explain to the US where Israel's true interests lie
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The Independent Online

One of the more surprising features of the Israeli intelligence community is the freedom afforded its high priests to disagree in public to an extent unthinkable in its more secretive, and in recent years arguably even more politicised, British counterpart. So it is that two leading spymasters, Meir Dagan, the head of Mossad, and Brigadier Yossi Gaidatz of Military Intelligence, have in the past fortnight openly expressed opposite views of whether President Bashar Assad of Syria is serious about wanting to negotiate with Israel.

This reflects an unexpectedly vigorous debate within Israel on the wisdom of negotiations with Syria up to and including the restoration of the Golan Heights, occupied since 1967, in return for a series of bankable Syrian concessions, not least an end to its backing for Hizbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Mr Olmert's position - apart from a brief wobble - has been broadly supportive of Mr Dagan, holding that, whatever it says from time to time in public, Syria's actions, including its alliance with Iran and its support for the "rejectionist" Palestinian organisations, are consistently inimical to Israel's interests and that negotiations are inappropriate until that changes. Undeterred by that, a third authority, the director of research in the Israeli foreign ministry, Nimrod Barcan, backed the Gaidatz view that Syria is serious.

This is not a simple polarisation between conventional left and right. Peace Now, it is true, has been arguing that Olmert should take Assad's admittedly confusing peace feelers seriously. Indeed, they turn the arguments of opponents of negotiations on their head, saying that nothing would further undermine Iran and Hizbollah than a deal with Syria. Equally, there are those on the hard right who choose to believe that the Golan is not, and should never be, a matter for discussion, and that talks are therefore pointless.

But even within the middle of that spectrum there are sharply differing views. The government line, as relayed by a senior Israeli official this week, is that successful negotiations with Syria are indeed in Israel's long term interests, just as they were when successive Israeli prime ministers embarked on them - albeit abortively - in the 1990s; but also that Syria is a far more dangerous country than it was then. Its links to Iran are far stronger and those with Hamas and Hizbollah more menacing.

Moreover it is clear, the official argued, that Syria's overriding interest in negotiations is to "decaffeinate" the international pressure building up over the murder of the former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri and prevent itself facing a similar fate to that of Libya, post-Lockerbie. As Tzipi Livni, the Israeli Foreign Minister, put it to the same Knesset committee this week: "We are obligated to ask ourselves whether Assad wants only negotiations or if he wants peace at the end of the process."

Against this background, the argument goes, a concrete sign of good faith would be needed from Syria - perhaps clear evidence that it was stopping weaponry for Hizobollah crossing its border with Lebanon or a Sadat-style journey by President Assad to the heart of the enemy in Jerusalem, or the closure, say, of the Islamic Jihad office in Damascus - before Israel would contemplate negotiations. That may have been behind Mr Olmert's more emollient declaration yesterday that he was open to any "murmur of peace" from Israel's enemies.

Most mainstream proponents of negotiations agree that Syria is more dangerous than in the 1990s but argue that this is a reason for trying negotiations rather than rejecting them. The eminent strategic analyst Yossi Alpher, hardly a romantic leftist, argues that successful negotiations would yield not only a "cold peace" with Syria herself but also the "partial removal of Iran from its growing position of negative influence in the Levant" and a "radical weakening of Hamas in the Israel-Palestinian conflict."

Mr Alpher does not say so but this is something neither the international blockade of the Palestinian Authority or the faltering and belated steps to strengthen the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, have shown any sign of doing. And he made clear last week he doubted the sense in setting preconditions for talks - which was not what Prime Ministers Rabin, Peres, Netanyahu or Barak did - that would require Syria to give up "trump cards" ahead of negotiations.

Mr Alpher accepts that Mr Assad's good faith cannot be relied on but envisages that negotiations might test it by proceeding slowly, a concession for a concession. On its side Israel, might for example, start by giving up Shaba Farms, claimed by both Syria and Lebanon but whose occupation is a casus belli for Hizbollah and of marginal strategic value to Israel.

Partly of course, this debate is all about Israel's, and Mr Olmert's, position in the region after a war in Lebanon that failed to realise the victory the Prime Minister led his public to expect last summer. Whether Israeli hawks are right that Syria is preparing for war, Israel's own future to its north is certainly at a crossroads. Military and internal pressures might persuade a weakened Mr Olmert that only another war offered the chance of outright rehabilitation; logic suggests that a diplomatic route would be a good deal more effective at neutralising Hizbollah.

As the commentator Ari Shavit, who has criticised Mr Olmert's conduct of the war from the right but is a cautious advocate of talks with Syria, put it: "The era of the status quo is over. The 30 years of no war and no peace in the Golan Heights have come to an end. That is the true significance of the second Lebanon war."

But it is also about Israel's relationship with the US. Although Mr Olmert has since sought to spin his way out of this, he was widely reported as indicating to his Cabinet earlier this month that talks with Syria would undermine President Bush. Israeli officials point out with justice that European governments have also expressed wariness about a rapprochement with Syria. Nevertheless, the US appears as ever to be uppermost in his mind.

It remains to be seen whether Mr Olmert will be influenced by a sharp, but probably ritual, criticism from the State Department of his government's decision to allow a new West Bank settlement. But on Syria he has certainly - up to now - seemed unwilling to gainsay President Bush.

Proponents of talks argue that it is up to Mr Olmert to explain to a US President already facing fierce domestic criticism of his Middle East policy at home where Israel's true interests lie. Others cite an ominous precedent: that of Golda Meir who, before the 1973 Yom Kippur war, ignored peace feelers from Anwar Sadat under pressure from a US pursuing its Cold War aims and ended up - despite an eventual military victory - suffering heavy casualties and eventually giving up the Sinai anyway.

The realisation that a neoconservative US administration nearing the end of its natural life, so far from pursuing Israel's true interests, seemed this summer to regard it as little more than a footsoldier in its global struggles would be something of a breakthrough, with implications far beyond Israel's relations with Syria.