For those who are home, and for those who are on the way. For those who support the historic and just return of the land of Israel to its people, forever loyal to their inheritance, and its restoration.
Friday, August 24, 2012
Us? Wrong about peace with Syria?
24 August '12..
In the spring of 2007, just a few years before the Arab Spring proved to be a winter of misery, a few dozen artists, former lawmakers, writers, and former defense establishment officials gathered on the infamous “Hill of Screams,” adjacent to the Druze village of Majdal Shams atop the Golan Heights. They had gathered there to “wave” a greeting of peace to Bashar al-Assad.
These retired defense officials and intellectuals demanded that the Israeli government view Assad as a partner and worthy interlocutor. The price that we would be required to pay as part of any agreement was obvious to all: a withdrawal from almost all, if not the entire Golan Heights, right down to the last centimeter.
The website Occupation Magazine, which closely covered and touted the group’s efforts, blasted the Israeli government’s “blind leadership” for its aversion to dealing with Assad. One anonymous poster to the site likened Assad to the late Anwar Sadat, going so far as to superimpose their names atop each other for effect. “Bashar is the gateway to Europe,” the poster wrote, before seeking to appeal to Israelis’ appetite for Middle Eastern cuisine. “I have an itch to eat hummus in Damascus and sip salep in Aleppo,” the writer declared.
The most prominent figures in this movement were author Sami Michael, former Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet) chief Yaakov Peri, and Middle East studies Professor Moshe Maoz. Spearheading the effort was Alon Liel, a retired diplomat who served as director-general of the Foreign Ministry.
Yuli Tamir, who was education minister in the government of Ehud Olmert, aimed her fury at U.S. President George W. Bush, who turned Israel away from the Syrian channel due to Assad’s ties with Hezbollah and Iran. “Syria is a pivotal axis among Middle Eastern countries,” the former minister said of the state which would eventually become an albatross even to its Arab allies. “We need to make clear to the Americans that we are not their frontier outposts in the Middle East,” she added.
At the time, Dan Meridor (now a minister without portfolio in the current government) likened the Israeli government’s refusal to negotiate with Syria to the Arab states’ refusal to talk peace with Israel, while former Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer (or Fouad, as he is known) submitted his view that “Syria was the key to regional change.”
“If I were prime minister, I would put all of my energies into Syria,” he recommended.
“The question of whether the Syrians can dip their toes in the Sea of Galilee is a childish one,” the former minister Yossi Beilin said at the time. “The enormous strategic benefit that would come with a peace treaty with Syria dwarfs any discomfort that may arise from the prospect of the Syrians coming down to the lake just as they did before the Six-Day War.”
It is hard to find an instance in which such a long list of varied individuals and technocrats who hold an array of political views turned out to be so colossally wrong on an issue like they were with Syria. Author Aharon Meged said that Israel’s avoidance of peace talks with Assad was a kind of “rose-colored blindness” which stemmed from the mistaken view that everything would remain as is.
Even Turkey’s chief rabbi, who during the Olmert premiership served as an intermediary between the Israeli and Syrian governments, said that Assad was “nice” after meeting him. In his testimony before the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee in Aug. 2009, Brig. Gen. Yossi Baidatz, at the time head of Military Intelligence’s research division, said: “If Syria faces a dilemma regarding a peace treaty with Israel, it will be ready to cool its relations with Iran, Hezbollah, and the Palestinian organizations.”
A number of other influential figures held a view almost as romantic as Baidatz's. This list includes Itamar Rabinovich, the former ambassador to the U.S.; Prof. Maoz, who is widely considered to be the most accomplished researcher and expert on modern Syria by virtue of the dozens of books and articles that he has authored on the subject; and former Military Intelligence chief Maj. Gen. (res.) Uri Sagi.
Sagi, who was widely quoted in Haaretz as saying that Israelis cannot trust the judgment of Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is loathe to forgive Barak for “missing out on” peace with Assad. He even wrote a book that summed up his thoughts on the subject, titling it “The Hand that Froze.”
All of these individuals share the view that Israel let a golden opportunity to achieve full peace in exchange for a full territorial withdrawal slip through its fingertips, even though this would have entailed the evacuation of all Jewish settlement from the Golan Heights and the restoration of Syrian sovereignty over a piece of land that stretches up to the banks of the Sea of Galilee. The agreement would have been subject to Syrian acquiescence to security arrangements, demilitarization of the territory, and the establishment of fully normalized ties with Israel.
“We all failed”
The massacre that Assad is currently committing against his people, the dismemberment of Syria, and the emergence of extremist forces like al-Qaida, jihadist groups, and the Muslim Brotherhood north of the border cannot but give one pause as to the wisdom and judgment of our most senior experts, analysts, and leaders.
Since the days of Yitzhak Rabin's second government, every prime minister – with the exception of Ariel Sharon – was willing to consider far-reaching compromises over the Golan. Essentially, there was no fundamental difference between Rabin, Shimon Peres, Barak, and Netanyahu. The shock and astonishment that now grip our leaders and experts over what is taking place in Syria crosses party lines, but there are only a select few who dare to admit an error in their thinking.
Just two senior newspaper columnists, Sever Plocker of Yedioth Ahronoth and Ari Shavit of Haaretz, were courageous enough to acknowledge that they were wrong. The rest, with the exception of Liel, who were interviewed for this article, either refused to recant their position back then, or virtually refused to recant it.
“I was wrong and I admit it,” Plocker wrote earlier this year. “I never took the tyrannical nature of the Damascus regime into account. I misled myself … I believed in this peace to the point where it obscured my perception of reality. Netanyahu was right. One does not make peace with murderers and dictators. Nothing good ever comes out of it. I need to do some soul-searching.”
Shavit recently acknowledged that if the ideas he had championed had come to pass, “battalions of global jihadis would be camping near Ein Gev and there would be al-Qaida bases on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. Northern Israel and the country's water sources would be bordering this summer on an armed, extremist Islamic entity that could not be controlled."
He continued, "I wrote incessantly in the newspaper and spoke on television about the need to reach a peace-for-Golan deal. I pushed for peace-with-Syria-now with all my strength. The opposing view looked unreasonable and immoral ... I expressed fury with Yitzhak Shamir and Ariel Sharon for blocking a dialogue with Syria and blocking Israel from peace."
"If we'd had peace in the 2000s, then today we'd already have bloodshed. If we had gone to bed with Assad a decade ago, today we'd be waking up with jihad. If we had given up Katzrin and Snir, we would have terror in Dan and Dafna. Strange substances would be flowing into the Jordan River tributaries. Frequent gun battles would be breaking out at Tel Katzir and Ha'on. The Syrian Golan would be turned into a black hole far more dangerous than the black hole of the Sinai desert."
Liel, who five years ago had professed his desire for peace atop the Hill of Screams, also speaks differently today. He even offers up some new insights, not just related to the question of Syria and the Golan, but also regarding the conflict with the Palestinians.
“When we held talks with Syria, Assad was still a partner for dialogue, not a war criminal,” he said. “Today, he has become a war criminal, and there is no chance that he or anyone of his ilk will receive the Golan from us.”
What has changed? Assad’s father, who in 1982 slaughtered tens of thousands of Sunnis in Hama, was also a war criminal.
“Nowadays, the world views these matters differently, and it’s a good thing that it does. In the past, the State of Israel did not examine the nature and the moral fiber of the regimes with which it negotiated as a prerequisite for talks. The approach was in favor of talking with everyone. The idea with Syria was to do a deal with it at the same time as striking a deal with the Palestinians, and to extricate Damascus from ‘the axis of exil’ and bring it closer to the U.S. Generally speaking, if ‘diplomacy’ and ‘expertise of the Middle East’ were a profession, I’m close to being a professional.”
Doesn’t a professional also need to gauge future risks?
“We all failed in this regard.”
In hindsight, would you have done anything differently?
“That is a theoretical question for which I have no answer. Perhaps if we had reached some kind of arrangement and Syria would open up to the U.S. and the West while cutting off ties to Hezbollah and Iran and opting for liberalization, then it would not be in its current predicament. As of right now and the foreseeable future, it is clear to me that we have no one to talk to in Damascus.”
Liel surprisingly goes further in his criticism of the “peace camp,” which he says made its biggest error on the Palestinian issue. “We thought that it was possible to reach a deal through swapping land for peace, but it turns out that this is not possible,” he said. “The passage of time has created tremendous gaps in the positions of both sides, to the point where it is impossible to bridge those gaps in the foreseeable future and even in the more distant future.”
“The critical mass of settlements is such that I don’t think it’s reversible,” he said. “Our historic error stems from the assumption that a majority of the Israeli public and a majority of the Palestinian public would agree to a deal. Today, as I look at the ingredients I need in order to bake this cake known as a Palestinian state, it looks to me like something that is totally inedible for both sides.”
“Even the Right, which has come round to the idea of a Palestinian state on a purely declarative level, understands that this is not going to happen,” he said. “There’s a huge shake-up here. I am still in favor of an agreement, even if it is one in which we do not give them land. The alternative is to give them individual and national rights under the framework of a territorial entity that stretches from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River. The question is what kind of rights.”
“We’re not prophets,” said Maoz, who also called for negotiations over the Golan. “We are historians. I and many others are capable of making mistakes. This isn’t math, but I do not buy the fear-mongering of Ari Shavit. Not all Muslims are anti-Semites. Not all of them are terrorists. Each case is different and unique from the other. Look at the Muslims in Albania and Kosovo. It’s not one Islam. Sometimes we have Jewish Islamophobia and Muslim anti-Semitism.”
“I believed that peace with the Syrians could lead them to cut ties with Iran and Hezbollah while also advancing a solution on the Palestinian issue. Peace would have boosted American influence in the region, and on the ground the Golan would have been demilitarized and with an observer force. Obviously the situation today is radically different, and we need to wait and see, but I do not discount the possibility that if a stable, Sunni Muslim regime does arise there, even one that includes the Muslim Brotherhood, it will be possible to come to agreement.”
In light of the military intelligence failure and the failure of experts to foresee future developments, is it not better to demand much more stringent security measures when talking about agreements with our neighbors?
“Everything needs to be very gradual. This was true then, and this is also true today.”
Prof. Rabinovich, the former president of Tel Aviv University and erstwhile ambassador who headed the negotiating team during Yitzhak Rabin’s second term as prime minister, predictably states that any agreement with Syria today would be “irrelevant.”
“An agreement could once again be relevant if a pro-Western, secular, democratic regime that wishes to disengage from Iran and change its orientation to one that is pro-U.S., arises there,” he said. “At the moment, this looks to be completely hypothetical. We could also be looking at a situation of anarchy and disintegration that could take years to unfold. We could have a situation where a civil war would produce a hostile, radical government that would inflame the border in a way that we have not seen for decades.”
Imagine a scenario in which this would happen while the Golan is in Syrian hands and we are pinned up against the banks of the Sea of Galilee, just as you and your negotiators had drawn up in the draft agreements during the talks with the Syrians.
“I have no regrets about my participation in the negotiations with Syria in the 1990s, which were undertaken in the hopes of reaching an agreement based on a withdrawal from the Golan Heights in exchange for full peace and sufficient security arrangements. In my view, if Syria had signed onto the deal then, it would not be in its current predicament.”
Ignoring the “Zeitgeist”
In his book, Sagi wrote that the negotiations between then-Prime Minister Barak and Hafez Assad broke down because of the national ethos – “both the Israeli and the Syrian ethos.”
“Believe it or not, [one also needs to take into account] public opinion in Syria,” Sagi said this week. “Assad the father even dismissed a number of his officers and held briefings with his defense chiefs in preparation for a possible signing of a peace treaty with Israel.”
Sagi is apoplectic when asked if he has any regrets or second thoughts about negotiating with Syria in light of the recent events there. “History doesn’t judge, nor does it repeat itself,” he said. “There are no identical historical processes. History is learned because of the questions it poses.”
“Obviously there is nothing to talk about with Assad in terms of peace today, and rightfully so,” he said. “Assad is ostracized from all dialogue among civilized humans, but after Assad, something else will happen. For me, the Golan Heights and peace are not the ends, but the means to improve our geo-strategic position here.”
“In 2000, we looked at the Syrian relationship with Iran and Hezbollah. If we had peace with Syria, Hezbollah would have been disarmed, and it may very well be that the situation in Iran today would be totally different. In the draft agreement that we exchanged with them, it was stipulated that any state that signed onto this deal would be forbidden from forming alliances with a hostile entity. With all due respect to Ari Shavit, what he wrote is nonsense. Neither Barak, nor I, nor Shavit could predict the future. Even in Jordan, things could be turned on their head overnight. There are some very strong undercurrents beneath the surface in that country. Does that mean that we were wrong in signing a peace treaty with them?”
“In Egypt, things have already turned upside down. Does that mean that the peace treaty with Egypt was a mistake? Whoever claims, ‘Look at those animals, the Syrians,’ ignores the concept known as ‘Zeitgeist,’ and also ignores the fact that agreements in the Middle East are forged and honored due to interests and not due to the morality or democratic nature that may or may not be in abundant supply among our neighbors.”
“There’s no doubt that the ‘Zeitgeist’ has changed, but if a stable regime, even an Islamist one, does take over in Syria sometime in the future, and it will be possible to negotiate with it, then we should once again strive for agreements on all issues, including normalization, security arrangements, demilitarization, and water. From my point of view, this is a supreme moral imperative.”
If so, then from a theoretical standpoint, your approach has not changed. But on a practical level, doesn’t the fact that it is impossible to predict anything in this old-new Middle East require us to take a more thorough approach on all matters related to security arrangements?
“On a practical level, obviously corrections are in order. Only an ass doesn’t change his mind. Persistence is not a good thing when talking about intelligence, historical processes, and intentions. I have no doubt that there will be changes. At the moment, nothing is identical to anything that happened in the past, but theoretically, we did not err.”
I visited Hevron in November 2000 after the outbreak of the Rosh Hashanah War to see what could be done to assist in the face of the growing daily attacks on the community. After returning to work for the community in the summer of 2001, a bond and a love was forged that grows to this day. My wife Melody and I merited to be married at Ma'arat HaMachpela and now host visitors from throughout the world every Shabbat as well as during the week. Our goal, "Time to come Home!"