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How Israel Thinks

Israel’s foreign intelligence service, the Mossad, recently concluded that Syria is sincere in its offers to make peace with Israel in exchange for Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights. The assessment was reported last week in the mass-circulation Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot, based on sources within the Mossad.

The Yediot report hasn’t received much attention, but it should. Last spring, the Mossad was the only dissenter among Israel’s four main intelligence agencies when the other three — Military Intelligence, the Shin Bet domestic security service and the Foreign Ministry intelligence bureau — reported that Syria was serious about peace. If the Mossad has turned around, then the Israeli intelligence community is now unanimous in its view of Syrian sincerity.

The intelligence agencies believe that Syria’s president, Bashar Assad, has overcome his early instability and is now firmly in command. They believe Assad wants to end Syria’s isolation, join the world community and the Arab mainstream and escape its dead-end alliance with Iran. They believe Israel has a window of opportunity to make peace with its most hostile neighbor and engineer a fundamental shift in Middle East politics.

They also believe that the window won’t stay open much longer. Iran, they say, is growing steadily stronger and more assertive. The longer Syria remains in its orbit, the harder it will be to break away. If Assad can’t show progress through negotiations within a year or two, he’ll be forced to abandon diplomacy and open fire.

The same clock is ticking on the Palestinian front. Israel is trying to negotiate peace with Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas, head of the nationalist Fatah movement. Few pretend that Abbas is strongly positioned to make a peace deal stick. For that matter, most Israelis doubt that their own Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has the political capital to deliver the concessions needed to make peace.

On the other hand, things are not getting better. Fatah’s rival, Hamas, is not getting weaker. If Abbas can’t deliver results to his people, Hamas will just keep growing. And the stronger Hamas grows, the less willing Israelis will be to take a chance.

On both fronts, Palestinian and Syrian, the road to peace is a steep, uphill climb. But the alternative is war and more war as far as the eye can see.

The deputy chief of staff of the Israeli military, Major General Moshe Kaplinsky, summed up the consensus of Israel’s security establishment in a much-discussed interview October 12 in Yediot. “I don’t think we’re headed toward war on the northern front,” said Kaplinsky, a beloved field commander who headed the Central Command during the last intifada and served as Ariel Sharon’s military adviser. “It’s not in our interest, and in my best estimate it’s not in their interest. But we’re keeping our eyes open.”

Syria is arming itself at a furious rate. The new weaponry is mostly defensive, Kaplinsky said, but that could change: “In my best estimate, the diplomatic window of opportunity that we’ve had in the Middle East is closing.”

Here in America we don’t hear much genuine Israeli thinking. Mostly what we hear are folks peddling their ideas of what Israel ought to be thinking. We hear professors teaching that Arabs are incapable of peace. We hear lawyers and real-estate moguls who are sure Israel’s security would, like their own prosperity, be threatened by concessions. We hear rabbis preaching that politics is a simple matter of reading the Bible, that God rewards blind faith and punishes compromise.

They’re all entitled to their views. One might ask, though, why they think they know more about Israeli security than Israel’s own security services. More urgently, one might wonder why anyone else would dream of listening to them.


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