Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s revelation of efforts to negotiate a possible peace agreement between Syria and Israel has kept the Israeli media very busy for the past few days. Editors are having a fabulous time with banner headlines and the commentators are churning out page upon page of political analysis.
But while the media is taking the story seriously, the Israeli public is not.
Israeli public is both terribly confused and deeply cynical. According to an article published today in the weekend magazine of Yedioth Aharonoth, two-thirds of the populations wants negotiations with Syria – but at the same time two-thirds oppose having Prime Minister Olmert lead the negotiations. Olmert’s popularity rating never really recovered from the debacle of the July 2006 war against Hezbollah; he is now under investigation for allegedly accepting envelopes of cash from American Jewish supporter Morris Talansky.
The most common theory in Israel is that Olmert is using the Syria story to deflect attention from the ongoing criminal investigation into his alleged financial misdeeds. Olmert’s political rivals, such as Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu unsurprisingly embrace that idea .
But nobody is panicking – not even the residents of the Golan Heights
With the exception of one or two English-language bloggers who are already foreseeing Gaza Evacuation II – Bigger , Badder and Scarier – hardly anyone in Israel believes there is even a remote chance of a peace agreement with Syria.
None of the prominent Israeli bloggers who write in Hebrew has commented on the story. According to journalist and blogger Yossi Gurvitz , the only possible response would be “snorts of contempt.” In a Hebrew post he wrote last month, Gurvitz pointed out that Olmert simply does not have the power to make peace with Syria: he would never succeed in obtaining the support of a Knesset majority for giving up the Golan.
The Assad regime, on the other hand, would never agree to a peace agreement that did not include the return of the Golan Heights to Syria.
While 50 percent of Israelis oppose any concessions on the Golan, 50 percent are convinced that this week’s news is just political spin. In other words, the Israeli Everyman wants peace, but he does not believe his political leaders are dealing with him in good faith.
The skepticism of the average Israeli regarding Assad’s intentions and their lack of faith in their leaders was well-illustrated on the wildly popular satire show A Wonderful Country.
On the show, in a panel interview seated alongside comic actors playing IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi and Onn Perlin, the flamboyant media advisor to Ehud Olmert, “Assad” claims that he has come to extend his hand in peace.
He has put the September 2007 bombing of the nuclear reactor – allegedly by the Israeli Air Force – behind him, he declares. After all, “It was made in North Korea so I didn’t expect it to last more than two months.”
The moderator of the panel, turns to the Prime Minister’s spokesman and asks him for a response to Assad’s historic offer. Spokesman Perlin leans across the table and addresses Assad directly, “Listen Sunshine, I’m afraid that this is not the best time for making peace. Maybe after the holidays. Don’t call us – we’ll call you.”
When Assad insists that he has come a long way and he is serious about discussing peace, Gen. Ashkenazi suddenly brandishes his weapon in Assad’s direction and yells, “You heard the man! Get outta here!”
And so Assad slinks off the set and heads back to Damascus.
Why is Israel so distrustful? In an opinion piece for Ynet called Golan Safe for Now, Shai Bazak, former spokesman for Netanyahu when he was Prime Minister wrote:
“Syria cannot deliver the minimal goods required of it; that is, severing its ties with terror organizations and the Iranian influence in favor of normalization with Israel. Meanwhile, Israel has no desire to provide the Syrians with military positions on the Golan, which would again threaten Israeli communities, or to allow the Syrians access to the Sea of Galilee.
On the other hand, both sides have an interest in maintaining a sort of pre-dialogue process; that is, an interest in being perceived as though they are aspiring for peace while the other side is presented as the rejectionist.
The supreme interest of President Bashar Assad, who is a member of the Alawite minority, is to safeguard his regime – a complicated mission considering the small size of the ethnic minority he is a part of. Any action undertaken by Assad stems from this desire.”
In other words, he’s saying let’s stop talking about conspiracy theories and look at the bottom line: while it may be in the best interest of the Syrian and Israeli political leaders to pretend they are talking about peace for a little while, in the long run it is definitely not in their best interest to do anything more than talk about talking.
But others say that Syria do have an interest in closing the deal – and that interest is more about Syria’s financial security than its physical security. David Kimche, an Israeli intelligence veteran who has experience dealing with the Syrians writes that the peace gestures are being made with an eye towards the United States and that eye has dollar signs in it:
The Syrians dearly want the US to become actively involved in the negotiations. They want to end their isolation, both in the West and in the Arab world, and believe that negotiations with us will help them achieve that aim. They would like to see American dollars – lots and lots of them – replace the moneys they are receiving from Iran. They have taken note of the Egyptian precedent – the American billions that poured into Cairo after the peace accord between Egypt and Israel. They know that to achieve these aims there is a price, above all the ending of their marriage of convenience with the fundamentalists of Iran.
Whether they are willing to pay that price – and whether Israel and the United States are buying what they have to sell, remains to be seen.