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Jerusalem’s Damascus Conundrum Raises Wartime Memories of Yom Kippur Past

Bashar Assad says he wants peace — but failing that, he’ll take war. The Syrian president has made a point of intoning that message repeatedly of late. In Israel, the question of how to respond — indeed, whether to respond at all — has created a ragged political division that cuts across the usual lines of left, right and center. The deciding factor, so far, seems to be the Bush administration’s opposition to any diplomatic contact with Damascus.

Assad’s latest call for renewing talks came in an interview with the Spanish paper El Pais this past Monday, in which he said that Syria and Israel could reach peace in six months if they resumed negotiations now. A few days earlier, speaking to Germany’s Der Spiegel newsweekly, he said, “We want to make peace — peace with Israel.” Then he added threateningly that “when the hope [for peace] disappears, then maybe war really is the only solution.”

The threat, it appears, got Israel’s attention. Israeli Military Intelligence has raised its estimation of the chance of war with Syria, according to press leaks last week. For years, the possibility that Syria would initiate a conflict was rated as “low.” The Syrian military was presumed to understand that it stood no chance in a war with Israel. The Syrian-Israeli boundary has remained quiet since it was set in the 1974 “interim” agreement following the Yom Kippur War — though Syria continually has used proxies such as Hezbollah and Hamas to remind Israel that the conflict is not over. After this summer’s indecisive fighting between Israel and Hezbollah, Syria may be re-evaluating the possibility of confronting Israel directly — or so say the intelligence leaks.

The Syrians “have the impression, not necessarily correctly, that they could gain something through force,” commented Uri Sagie, a former chief of Military Intelligence. Assad could believe, Sagie said, that “you don’t need to start an all-out war. By heating up the border or perhaps grabbing [some land], you might get world attention and renew the [diplomatic] dialogue.” Assad wants not only to get back the Golan Heights, Sagie said, but also to “get everyone off his back” — that is, to remove Syria from Washington’s blacklist and reduce his isolation.

Assad’s double message of peace and war, former ambassador Itamar Rabinovich said, is similar to how Egyptian President Anwar Sadat talked more than 30 years ago, when he sought to regain the Sinai. Rabinovich, now president of Tel Aviv University, headed Israel’s negotiating effort with Syria under late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin.

Though Rabinovich does not elaborate, his parallel is provocative. In the early 1970s, Sadat was hinting at peace and threatening war. Israeli intelligence, backed by then-defense minister Moshe Dayan, dismissed the chance of war, convinced that Sadat lacked the means to conquer the Sinai. The United States — in a policy formulated by then-national security adviser Henry Kissinger — declined to broker peace talks until Egypt abandoned the Soviet bloc, failing to respond to signs that Sadat was ready to do so.

Yet when Egypt did attack on Yom Kippur 1973, Sadat’s goal was not to retake the entire peninsula militarily. Instead, he sought to seize a narrow strip of land and to force the United States and Israel into a diplomatic process that would give him the rest. Costly as the war was for Egypt, he succeeded.

The parallel between Sadat and Assad is far from perfect. Sadat was able to initiate a two-front war in collusion with Syria, and he had the Soviet Union’s military backing. Today, Assad lacks those strategic assets — and perhaps Sadat’s daring, as well. History does not repeat itself precisely.

Still, Assad’s challenge has divided Israeli politicians. Some leading figures, including Public Security Minister (and former Shin Bet security service chief) Avi Dichter, began arguing in the wake of last summer’s Lebanon war that Assad’s peace hints should be explored. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, on the other hand, repeatedly has rejected talking to Syria.

“In practice, they continue sponsoring terror,” Olmert recently told Ynet, the Internet site of Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot, “including Palestinian terror groups that act against us in the territories.” He added: “The United States opposes talks with Syria…. Like many others, it doesn’t believe Syria wants peace, but perhaps to reduce the pressure on it….”

Olmert was even more blunt in another pre-Yom Kippur interview. “As long as I am prime minister, the Golan Heights will remain in our hands,” he declared.

The prime minister’s comments underline the twin pressures on him. Diplomatically, he seeks to avoid tension with Washington, which now treats the Middle East as divided between pro-Western and pro-Iranian forces. Domestically, the war-weakened Olmert cannot challenge the powerful Golan lobby.

Yet the cracks reach even into Olmert’s own Kadima party. “Imagine an alliance with Syria…. What leader can permit himself to miss a chance like that?” said Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik of Kadima in an interview published Sunday in Ma’ariv.

Former military chief of staff Moshe Ya’alon recently said in Ha’aretz that he favors negotiations with Syria. Ya’alon, widely expected to enter politics in the Likud, said he advised Ariel Sharon three years ago to begin talks with Assad in order to “crack the northern alignment of Iran-Syria-Hezbollah.” At the other end of the political spectrum, Meretz lawmaker and ex-colonel Ran Cohen told me that a key question after the summer’s war is why Israel “did not exploit the time since the withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000 to reach a peace agreement with Syria.” Negotiations now, he said, might prevent another war.

On the other hand, Labor Knesset member Ephraim Sneh, an ex-general who is considered dovish on Palestinian issues, argues that “right now there is nothing to talk about” with Assad. Before Syria can have normalization with the United States or negotiations with Israel, Sneh said, it must meet four conditions: It must influence Hamas to release captive Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, boot Hamas political leader Khaled Mashal out of Damascus, stop the arms flow to Hezbollah and seal its eastern border to Iraqi insurgents. Meeting those conditions, Sneh told the Forward, would “remove Syria from its strategic alliance with Iran” and from “the axis of evil.”

Sneh’s approach surely would please Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who recently spoke of getting other countries to join in new sanctions against Damascus — without specifying the means she had in mind. Her tour this week of the Middle East, which coincidentally began on Yom Kippur, does not include a stop in Damascus. Instead, she seeks to renew Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy and to bolster ties with Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia — viewed as a Sunni coalition against the Shi’ite-led Iranian-Syrian alliance. Rice’s approach underscores the administration’s view of the Middle East as once again divided into clear blocs.

Old Syria hands in Israel are less convinced that Assad’s overtures should be ignored. Rabinovich recommends “discreetly clarifying” with Assad “whether there is anything to talk about.” Such secret contacts, he notes, would have to be coordinated with Washington.

Sagie, who was in charge of talks with Syria under former prime minister Ehud Barak, said that Syrian-Israeli peace remains “a supreme strategic interest” for both sides. For that matter, he suggested, the Bush administration’s hard line “is not necessarily in U.S. interests.”

True, Sagie stressed, Syria “has done its utmost… regarding Iraq, Lebanon and Iran” to cause its own isolation. But “dividing the world into good guys and bad, black and white,” has undermined American influence in the Middle East, he said. “There are other shades, as you know. I’m not sure that Bush does.”

Sagie noted that in the long term, Lebanon is likely have a Shi’ite majority. Given the risk of a radical Syrian-Lebanese coalition, it makes more sense to try to pull Syria to the moderate side. “I don’t justify Syria,” he said, “but ignoring it does not serve Israel or American” needs.

That was advice that Rice seemed unlikely to hear in official Jerusalem — and perhaps even less likely to accept.

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