In the past, when the press has reported that Israel’s leaders were talking to Syria about returning the Golan Heights for peace, I was skeptical. First Yitzhak Rabin, then Binyamin Netanyahu, then Ehud Barak signalled to Syria that they were willing to contemplate a full withdrawal from the Golan Heights in exchange for a peace agreement. Yet, when I compared the price to be paid with the possible benefits, it wasn’t clear to me that the deal was a good one. What were we losing by holding on to the Golan, and what would we gain by giving it up?
In contrast, Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip was clearly debilitating our country, and we obviously stood to gain much by leaving them and allowing the establishment of a Palestinian state.
Today, Ehud Olmert’s government is talking, indirectly, with Syria about returning the Golan Heights in the framework of a peace agreement, and with Hamas about a cease fire in the Gaza Strip. Now the benefits of an agreement with Syria seem obvious to me, while I’m skeptical about a possible agreement with Hamas.
Gershom has concisely summed up the reasons to pursue the negotiations with Syria. Iran is behind the malevolent forces on Israel’s borders, and in the current geopolitical constellation, the best way to neutralize Iran’s influence to our north is to create a situation in which Syria’s interests will tie it to the West. All the signs are that Syria is seeking such an opportunity.
Iran is also behind the Hamas arms buildup. With Iranian help, Hamas is swiftly extending the range of its missiles and mortars. A cease-fire would make the lives of Israelis who live within range (my oldest daughter, who lives in Sderot, is one of them) much easier. But will it lead Hamas to abandon its Iranian patrons?
Right now, that seems unlikely. Syria knows that it will never regain the Golan by force of arms no matter how much Iranian support it receives. But from Hamas’s point of view, their Iranian connection has been immensely profitable and they see Israel’s viable military options as limited.
Don’t get me wrong–I favor pursuing the talks with Hamas. But if I were prime minister, I’d try to move the talks with Syria forward quickly. With Hamas, I’d move slowly, while intensifying military pressure on the Gaza Strip. We can make a good deal with Syria because we have something they want that they can’t get except by making peace and abandoning their Iranian patron. To make peace with Hamas, and to convince them that their Iranian connection is detrimental, we need to show them first that we’re willing and able to pursue the fight.
Hamas’s strategy is to keep upping the ante–firing a missile at Ashkelon, sending a truck laden with tons of explosives to a border crossing. Their assumption seems to be that if they keep intensifying their attacks, Israel will give in.
A full-scale invasion of the Gaza Strip would be bloody and costly in life and property for both sides. A bad cease-fire, however, will make such an enventuality more likely, because if the cease-fire fails, the only option left will be major military action. Ironically, the best way to avoid an invasion is to prepare for it. Military pressure will produce a stronger agreement, one with a better chance of turning into a permanent peace.