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The Syrian Option

Escaping Forwards

by URI AVNERY

The Germans call it "die Flucht nach vorne" – escaping forwards. When the situation is desperate, attack! Instead of retreating, advance!
When there is no way out, storm ahead!

This method was successful in 1948. At the end of May, the Egyptian army was advancing on Tel Aviv. We – a very, very thin line of soldiers – were all that stood in its way. So we attacked. Again and again and again. We suffered heavy losses. But we stopped the Egyptian advance.

Now Ehud Olmert is applying the same method. His situation is desperate. Most people in Israel do not doubt that he has received large bribes in envelopes stuffed with dollars. The Attorney General is liable to indict him any time, and this will compel him to resign.

And lo and behold, at the most critical moment, just before the most damning details come out, a joint statement is issued simultaneously in Jerusalem, Damascus and Ankara, announcing the start of peace negotiations between Israel and Syria, with Turkey acting as mediator. The talks will be based on the principles of the 1991 Madrid Conference, meaning the return of the entire Golan Heights.

Wow!!!

* * *

IN THIS, too, Olmert is the worthy pupil of his predecessor and mentor, Ariel Sharon.

Sharon was up to his neck in corruption affairs. In one of them, the so-called "Greek Island affair", the Israeli millionaire David Appel paid huge sums to Sharon’s son, a novice, for "advice". At the time, too, it seemed that the Attorney General could not possibly avoid issuing an indictment.

Sharon’s response was sheer genius: the Separation. Separation from the Gaza Strip. Separation from the Attorney General.

That was a gigantic operation. In a minutely orchestrated melodramatic performance, the Gush Katif settlements were dismantled. Together with several army divisions, all police forces – the same police that was supposed to investigate the Sharon family’s business affairs – were deployed in a breath-taking national endeavor. The peace camp supported, of course, the evacuation of the settlements. The corruption affairs were all but forgotten.

The separation, which was carried out without any dialogue with the Palestinians, has turned the whole of the Gaza Strip into a ticking bomb, and now Ehud Olmert has to negotiate a cease-fire. For Sharon, though, the entire exercise was a success. If he had not suffered a stroke, he would still be Prime Minister today.

The lesson did not escape Olmert.

* * *

AESTHETES MAY exclaim: Phooey! We should not countenance such a dirty trick! We cannot agree to a peace conceived in sin!

Maybe my aesthetic sense is blunted. Because I am ready to accept peace even from a totally corrupt leader, even from Satan himself. If the corruption of a politician causes him to do something that will save the lives of hundreds and thousands of human beings on both sides – that’s OK with me. Didn’t the philosopher Friedrich Hegel talk about the "cunning of reason"?

The Bible recounts that when the army of Damascus laid siege to Samaria, the capital of the Kingdom of Israel, four leprous men brought the news that the enemy had fled (2 Kings, 7). The Hebrew poetess Rachel wrote, alluding to this story, that she was not willing to receive good news from lepers. Well, I am.  

Conventional wisdom has it that to make peace, one needs a strong leader. Now it appears that the opposite also works: that a weak leader, almost submerged in troubles, whose term in office could come to a sudden end at any moment and whose coalition stands on feets of clay, a leader who has nothing to lose – he too may risk all to make peace.

 

THE PLOT may move on from here in several possible directions.

The first possibility: it’s all "spin" – an American term that has become Olmert’s middle name. He will just stretch the negotiations out like bubble gum, as he has been doing with the Palestinians, and wait for the storm to blow over.

It will be difficult for him to do so, because Turkey is now a partner in the game. Even Olmert understands that it will be sheer folly to annoy the Turks, who are risking their national prestige here. Turkey is a very important partner of our security establishment.

Whatever comes of it, Olmert’s agreement to conduct negotiations based on the return of all the Golan is an important step forward. Coming on top of the previous undertakings by Yitzhak Rabin, Binyamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, it defines a line of no return.

The second possibility: Olmert really means it. For his own reasons, he will conduct negotiations "in good faith", as he undertook this week, and reach an agreement. In the country, a wild campaign of incitement will be launched against him. The Knesset will fall apart, new elections will be held, Olmert will again head the Kadima list and win as peacemaker.

Alternatively: he will lose those elections. But he will leave the scene in an honorable cause, not thrown out for his own corruption, but sacrificing himself on the altar of peace.  

Alternatively: the Attorney General will indict him in spite of everything, he will resign but go home with head held high as a leader who has taken a historic step. The Attorney General will look like a saboteur of peace and perhaps even the cause of another war.

* * *

A PERTINENT question: if Olmert has indeed decided to "escape forwards"’ why escape forwards towards peace and not towards war? This is what usually happens: leaders on the threshold of disaster prefer to start a little (or sometimes big) war. There is nothing like war to divert attention, and waging war is almost always more popular, at least at the beginning, than making peace.

Here there are also two possibilities:

The first: like Paul, Olmert had a revelation, and has really become a man of peace. The nationalist demagogue has matured and now understands that the national interest demands peace. A cynic will laugh out loud. But stranger things have happened on the road to Damascus.

The second: Olmert believes that the Israeli public prefers peace with Syria to war with Syria, and hopes to gain some popularity as a peace-maker. (I believe this to be true.)

The third: Olmert knows that all the chiefs of the Security Establishment (with the notable exception of the Mossad boss) support peace with Syria out of cold strategic calculation. In the eyes of the army General Staff, the loss of the Golan Heights is a reasonable price to pay for breaking Syria loose from Iran and lessening its support for Hizbullah and Hamas, especially if an international force is stationed there after they revert to being the "Syrian Heights". 

Syria is a Sunni country, even if it is ruled by members of the small Alawite sect, which is closer to the Shia. (The Alawis derive their name from Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet, who the Shiites consider his rightful heir.) The alliance between secular Sunni Syria and orthodox Shiite Iran is a marriage of convenience, without an ideological basis. The alliance with Shiite Hizbullah is also based on interests: since Syria does not dare to attack Israel in order to get the Golan back, it supports Hizbullah as a proxy.  

* * *

ALL THIS happens without the US. This, too, has its precedents: the Sadat initiative of 1977 matured behind the backs of the Americans (as the American ambassador in Cairo at the time told me later). The Oslo initiative also ripened without American participation.

Until lately, the US has opposed any Israeli-Syrian thaw, and even now looks at it askance. In George Bush’s cowboy world vision, Syria belongs to the "axis of evil" and must be isolated.

That is grist to the mill for John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, the two American professors who are due to visit Israel next month. Their provocative book asserted that the Israel lobby totally dominates US foreign policy. In this new development, it does indeed seem that Jerusalem has bent Washington to its will.

During his visit to Jerusalem a few days ago, Bush railed against talking with enemies. This was understood to be a rebuke aimed at Barack Obama, who has announced his willingness to speak with the leaders of Iran. Perhaps Olmert is already betting on Obama’s entering the White House.

But Bush is not finished yet. He has got eight more months to go, and he, too, may come to the conclusion that he should "escape forwards". In his case: by attacking Iran.

* * *

HOW IS all this going to affect the mother of all problems, the core of the Israeli-Arab conflict: the question of Palestine?

Menachem Begin made a separate peace with Egypt and gave back the whole of the Sinai Peninsula in order to concentrate on the war with the Palestinians. Undoubtedly, Begin was ready to do the same on the Syrian front. According to the map used by Vladimir (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky, which Olmert was brought up on, the Golan, like Sinai, is not a part of Eretz Israel.

A separate peace harbors great dangers for the Palestinians. If the Israeli government reaches a peace agreement with Syria (and then Lebanon), it will have peace with all the neighboring states. The Palestinians will be isolated and the Israeli government will be able to deal with them as it wishes.

As against this danger, there is a positive prospect: that after the evacuation of the Golan, there will be increased pressure, from inside and outside, to reach peace with the Palestinians, too, at long last.

The Golan settlers are far more popular in Israel than their West Bank counterparts. While the Ofra and Hebron settlers are viewed as religious fanatics, whose crazy behavior is quite alien to the Israeli character, the settlers of the Golan are seen as "people like us". The more so, since they were sent there by the Labor Party. If the Golan settlers are evacuated, it will be much easier to deal with the "Judea and Samaria" crowd.

Being at peace with all Arab states, the Israeli public may feel more secure, and therefore more willing to take risks in making peace with the Palestinian people.

The international atmosphere will also change. If the "axis of evil" fantasy disappears together with George Bush, and a new American leadership makes a serious effort to achieve peace, optimism will again dare to raise its battered head. Some people dream about a partnership of Barack Obama and Tzipi Livni.

All this belongs to the future. In the meantime we have a weak Olmert, who needs a powerful initiative. In the Biblical legend, the hero Samson killed a young lion, and when he returned to it, "behold, there was a swarm of bees and honey in the carcase." Samson put forth a riddle unto the Philistines: "Out of the strong came forth sweetness", and nobody was able to solve it (Judges, 14).

Now we can well ask: "Will the weak bring forth sweetness?"

URI AVNERY is an Israeli writer and peace activist with Gush Shalom. He is a contributor to CounterPunch’s book The Politics of Anti-Semitism.