Why Israel should negotiate with Damascus

By Mario Sznajder (for Safe Democracy)

Mario Sznajder questions Ehud Olmert‘s policy decisions in relation to the Palestinians, and Syria, noting that Olmert‘s leadership has taken on new levels of uncertainty that are uncommon to Israeli politics. In Sznajder‘s opinion, Prime Minister Olmert must define a clear political strategy and move forward in negotiations with Damascus. The following article explains why.

Mario Sznajder is a Leon Blum chair and professor of political science at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He is a researcher for the Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace. He has published hundreds of articles in scientific journals on fascism, human rights, democracy, and the Middle East.


After abandoning his policy of unilateral withdrawal following last summer’s disastrous War in Lebanon, Ehud Olmert has once again taken up the Israeli government’s ritual declarations of peace. And his decision-making has reached a level of indecision, uncommon in Israeli politics.

On the Palestinian front, the ceasefire has converted itself into a unilateral effort by Israel to avoid military responses to the continuing barrage of Israeli population centers by Kassam missiles launched from Gaza. More than forty missiles have fallen on Israeli territory since the ceasefire was called.

If the political objective of the ceasefire was to promote a Palestinian national unity government to neutralize the power that Hamas gained in the January elections of 2006, than Israel has not been successful.

Nor has it accomplished its goal of liberating the Israeli soldier (kidnapped over half a year ago) in exchange for Palestinian prisoners.

As the Palestinian political crisis deepens, the possibility of a civil war between Al Fatah and Hamas grows more likely, and violence continues, President Mahmoud Abbas’ decision to call for expedited Parliamentary and Presidential elections has only exacerbated the growing tension.

And even after reopening negotiations with the Palestinians through a highly anticipated, hour-long meeting with Abbas, Olmert appears to have made little progress. The question as to what policy direction Olmert will take in dealing with the Palestinians is yet to have a clear answer.

Under pressure from the opposition and various ministers of his own coalition, the Prime minister must now decide between continuing the unilateral ceasefire in Gaza while the rockets continue to rain down, or returning to the tactic of failed military reprisals.

But all of this depends upon another question: how will Olmert respond to the declared intentions of Syrian President Bashar Assad to unconditionally reinitiate the peace process with Israel?

It’s important to remember that since the 1990’s, every Prime Minister of Israel –Shamir, Rabin, Peres, Netanyahu, Barak, and Sharon –has explored the possibility of negotiating peace with Syria: the return of the Golan Heights in exchange for the signing of a peace treaty similar to the ones signed with Egypt and Jordan.

And while up until now, none of the negotiations have resulted in either the proposed treaty or the territorial handover, on many occasions peace has gone from possible, to attainable.

Yet, Olmert refused the Syrian opening, at least publicly, subordinating Israeli interests more than any past Prime Minister to US foreign policy. For the meanwhile, Olmert has aligned himself with George W. Bush’s position on the matter: Syria is a member of the Axis of Evil, and with evil, there is no negotiation.

This, despite the Republican Party’s defeat in the midterm elections, and the recent report by the Iraq Study Group, led by James A. Baker and Lee H. Hamilton (The Iraq Study Report, complete report) that openly recommended negotiations with Syria.

We must also not forget that over the years, the studies done on military structure and Israeli security have signaled the necessity of negotiations with Syria.

And so, the implications of Ehud Olmert’s position are clear: the reinforcement of the Tehran-Damascus alliance, which will only result in more terrorist or military violence in the future. If Israel does not negotiate with Damascus, Iran will finance Syria to help the renewal and modernization of its armed forces; Syria will continue to support the anti-Israeli initiatives of Hezbollah in Lebanon, and will control the growing tension in the complex Lebanese political scenario; and Khaled Mashal, the true leader of Hamas, will continue to operate from Damascus following the theory that only armed conflict and the complete destruction of Israel can liberate the Palestinian people of Gaza and the West Bank.

But above all, by not exploring negotiations with the Syrians, Olmert is legitimizing those who claim that the only way to deal with Israel is through military or terrorist violence: unless, of course, the public refusal of a Syrian dialogue is being accompanied by secret contacts between Syrian and Israeli officials.

For now, however, the question Quo Vadis Olmert? remains without a clear answer.

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