Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Gambling On Damascus

The Israeli defense establishment favors reviving the Syrian track as the most effective way of breaking out of isolation and easing Israel's strategic difficulties.

By Aluf Benn
This commentary was published in Haaretz on 05/01/2011

Negotiations with the Palestinians are stuck, international pressure on Israel is growing and Labor is threatening to leave the government - who can save us in our time of need? As always, our friend in Damascus.

Signs of life on the Syrian track intensify every time the Israeli prime minister is in trouble. Peace with Syria has yet to come, but diplomats and journalists have something to occupy them, and Ehud Barak who, 11 years ago this week was deterred at the moment of truth from a deal with the Syrians, can continue justifying his place in the government of Benjamin Netanyahu.

The Channel 10 report about Jewish leader Malcolm Hoenlein's trip to Damascus ignited speculation. Is this a rerun of the mediation runs between Jerusalem and Damascus conducted by Ron Lauder, Netanyahu's confidant, during the prime minister's previous term? Or is this merely a "humanitarian mission" in the words of Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations? Should we hurry and make a farewell visit to the Golan, or can we wait until the spring?

The package is no less important than what it contains. Hoenlein is not the head of Peace Now, or J Street, but a man of the right wing, and one of the leaders of the Jewish establishment in the United States.

If Bashar Assad found time for him, it means that he wants to pass a message to the Jewish community in the U.S., to the U.S. administration and to Israel, albeit in his own way. It is hard to imagine that Hoenlein would have gone to Damascus without an okay from the Prime Minister's Bureau in Jerusalem.

Herein lies the proof that Netanyahu is no Golda Meir: she blocked the Jewish leader Nahum Goldman from traveling to Cairo, and Netanyahu is sending Hoenlein to Damascus.

During the week in which he met with Hoenlein, Assad hosted in his palace the Lebanese terrorist Samir Kuntar, who murdered the Haran family in Nahariya, and who was released from Israeli prison about two years ago. Kuntar gave the Syrian President his memoir, and the two praised the "resistance as a means for restoring the rights of Arabs."

This is how Bashar is: everyone's friend, of Hoenlein, of Kuntar, or Netanyahu and Nasrallah. All they have to do is show up.

Assad appears as the most successful diplomat in the Middle East. His patience and caution have paid off: everyone, from East and West, from Europe and Turkey, from Iran and China, are now wooing Syria. When the future of other regimes in the region is uncertain, ahead of the American withdrawal from Iraq, and leadership changes in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, Assad is marketing his country as an island of stability, a secular dictatorship with a young leader.

Before the publication of the findings of the investigation into the Harriri assassination, he leveraged in his favor concerns that Lebanon may disintegrate.

In return for his promise that calm will reign, he collected in advance an official visit to Paris and a new U.S. ambassador in Damascus. The secularism and Western outlook was bolstered with the opening of a new casino in his capital. It will be a future attraction for Israelis, along with the markets and the hummus.

The Lonely Planet 2011 travel guide, which praised the joys of Tel Aviv, also recommends a visit to Syria. In the section on little known facts, it is mentioned that the first Syrian astronaut was sent to space in 1987, a lot before Israel's Ilan Ramon. It also mentions that Asma Assad, the President's wife, has a Facebook page, even though the social network is banned in Syria.

I checked it out: Asma has over 80,000 fans, and her message of secularization is clear in the photographs of her bare arms and short skirts, and with her meetings with T-shirt clad female students. I signed up as a fan.

Two weeks ago, Asma Assad told Paris Match magazine, "Peace is the only solution, but we have no partner for peace." Her statement summarizes the campaign that Damascus is currently running in an effort to show that the road to Washington does not necessarily pass through Jerusalem.

In Assad's view, Israel is currently being ruled by Netanyahu the peace refusenick, and he can be bypassed. Meanwhile the maneuver is quite successful: Syria is being gradually extricated from its isolation and Israel is tied up in the corner.

The defense establishment favors reviving the Syrian track as the most effective way of breaking out of isolation and easing Israel's strategic difficulties. Netanyahu insists on not conceding the Golan Heights from the start, which is what the Syrians are demanding. Will he reevaluate his position - to keep Barak in his government and weaken the Palestinians - by going to play at Assad's roulette wheel?

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