In the weeks since Arabs began rising up against governments across the Middle East, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has described the unrest mostly in terms of the dangers it poses to Israel. Appearing before lawmakers on Feb 2, he said Israel must brace for years of instability. Two weeks later, he told his cabinet that the changes would surely force Israel to spend more on defense. And at a public event last week, he warned that Islamists would try to hijack the democratic revolutions, just as Ayatollah Khomeini usurped the Iranian one in 1979. The message in all these statements is that Israel would now be hunkering down. If it was reluctant to take risks for peace with its neighbors before the uprisings, now it would be even more cautious.
But lately, a few Israeli officials are quietly making the opposite argument: that events in the region call for bold Israeli initiatives, not just with the Palestinians but perhaps chiefly with Syria; that instead of hunkering down, Israel should now be doubling down. Advocates of this approach mostly come from the top echelons of the military and intelligence agencies, where officials have long felt that the strategic benefits of peace with Syria were worth the price Israel would have to pay in territory. But Israelis familiar with internal discussions in recent weeks say the case for aggressive diplomacy is also being made by a few people within Netanyahu’s government, including Defense Minister Ehud Barak. This week, Barak told Israel’s state-run radio: “The Syrians are signaling that they are also willing to consider a peace agreement without harming our security…. I think we have to examine every option.”
The argument for engaging Syria forthwith is underpinned by a certain schoolyard logic: when you’re losing friends, you need to make new ones fast. Israel let a key regional ally slip away when it sparred with Turkey over an aid ship to the Gaza Strip last year. Depending on the outcome of the revolution in Egypt, its relationship with an even more important ally could also take a dive. The last time Israel suffered a setback of that magnitude was when Islamists deposed the Iranian Shah in 1979; the two countries had broad commercial ties and shared intelligence. In what might stand today as a model of a diplomatic rebound, Israel signed a peace treaty with Egypt that same year, more than offsetting the damage. Ilan Mizrahi, a former deputy chief of Mossad, says a deal with Damascus now would have the added advantage of extracting Syria from Iran’s orbit. “If the major radical threat to stability in the Middle East is Iran, then you have to weaken Iran’s position in the Middle East,” he says.
The argument for engaging Syria forthwith is underpinned by a certain schoolyard logic: when you’re losing friends, you need to make new ones fast.
The most glaring problem with the approach is that Syria is precisely the kind of repressive regime that democratic movements across the region are targeting. Though protests there have been minimal, some analysts believe Syrian President Bashar Assad, who inherited power from his father a decade ago, might soon go the way off the Mubaraks and Ben Alis. From Israel’s perspective, that would mean ceding territory and then bracing for instability—the very scenario it seeks to avoid. Even if Assad is stable, an agreement is a tall order. Assad’s asking price for peace is a full withdrawal from the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau Israel captured in 1967. Under Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Israel came very close to a deal with Syria but couldn’t close the gaps, says Mizrahi, who served as Olmert’s national security adviser.
And Olmert was certainly more compromising than Netanyahu would be. Senator John Kerry, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has visited Syria and Israel several times in the past two years trying to resuscitate peacemaking. According to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, when Kerry showed Netanyahu a paper outlining Syrian terms for fresh talks, the Israeli leader remained dismissive. (Neither Kerry’s office nor Netanyahu’s would discuss details of their conversations). Even if Netanyahu favored a deal he would have trouble getting approval from his hawkish cabinet. His foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, said this week that Syria was only feigning interest in peace to win western legitimacy. “There is no justification for Israel giving up the Golan Heights,” he told foreign diplomats.
Still, Netanyahu is under pressure to do something about Israel’s rising isolation. He’s come under withering criticism from European leaders for not advancing the peace process with the Palestinians, who refuse to renew negotiations until Israel freezes settlement building. Netanyahu also seems to be paying a price domestically. A poll published last week in the newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth showed he was losing ground to opposition leader Tzipi Livni, whose approach to peacemaking is more flexible. Giving talks with Syria a green light might be the easiest way for Netanyahu to deflect the criticism at home and abroad. From his perspective, talks don’t have to lead to an agreement. Israelis and Arabs have been proving that for decades.
Dan Ephron has been Newsweek’s Jerusalem bureau chief since January, 2010. Previously, he served as a national security correspondent and deputy bureau chief for the magazine in Washington. His stories have also appeared in the Boston Globe, The New Republic and Esquire .