What a difference a year makes. It was just one year ago this week that the IAF destroyed the North Korean built, Iranian financed nuclear reactor in Syria. The raid exposed Syria as a full partner in the Iranian-led jihadist axis. Its prolonged diplomatic isolation was a foregone conclusion.
But just one year later, Syria is being feted by France. It's signing billion-dollar oil and gas deals with France's oil giant Total. A triumphant President Bashar Assad is openly demanding that the US follow France's lead and start licking his boots.
Syria has Israel to thank for its stunning reversal of fortunes. It opened the door that Assad gleefully walked through this week as he playacted the role of responsible international leader while remaining loyal to Iran, Hizbullah, Hamas and the terror militias in Iraq.
Israel opened the door by participating in Turkish-mediated talks with Syria regarding a surrender of the Golan Heights. Although both sides referred to the talks as "peace negotiations," it was obvious that no peace would come from them.
Since the early 1990s, Syria has recognized that intermittent, fruitless discussions with Israel about the Golan Heights are the best means of maintaining or reestablishing its acceptability in the West. After Assad ordered the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005, he immediately turned to Israel to pull his fat from the fire by offering to renew negotiations regarding a surrender of the Golan Heights. Israel held out for two and a half years and during those years, Assad wasted away in international isolation. With even the UN breathing down his neck, Assad and his regime were hanging on for dear life.
But then suddenly, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert came to the rescue. Thanks to Olmert, Syria is back in the driver's seat and as one could have expected, Assad's first order of business was to throw Israel under the bus. No longer in need of its assistance, as he stood next to French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Assad announced that the "peace talks" are suspended. And both Assad and Sarkozy blamed their suspension on Israel, whose "political instability" makes it impossible to proceed.
There is no doubt that the country will pay a price for Olmert's decision. But it is also fairly clear that the next government – whether led by Kadima or the Likud – will be unlikely to repeat his mistake. Olmert's political opponents warned him that his move would endanger Israel by legitimizing Syria and rewarding it for its strategic alliance with Iran. And his opponents' view that Olmert was wrong to reach out to Assad is shared by a majority of the public and a fair amount of the media. Indeed, since Israel began negotiating the surrender of the Golan Heights in 1992, the consistent view of the majority has been that the country is better off with the Golan than without it, even if that means no peace treaty with Syria.
WHEREAS OLMERT's Syrian gambit is unlikely to cause any irreparable damage and is unlikely to be repeated by his successors, the same cannot be said of his gambit with the Palestinians. There Olmert acts against little organized or coherent opposition. And his actions are openly supported by his colleagues in Kadima, who have to varying degrees all committed themselves to continue his policies.
Kadima was elected on a platform of unilateral withdrawal from Judea and Samaria. While it never disclaimed its intention to expel up to 100,000 Israelis from their homes in the areas and withdraw, after the Hamas takeover of Gaza and after the war with Hizbullah in 2006, the government claimed that it would only expel them after it signed a deal setting out the contours of a Palestinian state with Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas. And in the interest of achieving just such a deal, the government has been carrying out negotiations for the past year.
As has been the case with the talks with Syria, the government has precluded public debate about the wisdom of a potential deal by hiding the details of its discussions and its intentions from the public. Backed by the Bush administration, which has championed the negotiations, the Olmert-Livni-Barak government has kept their content secret.
At the same time, it has quieted its opponents by loudly proclaiming that the chances that a deal will be concluded before President George W. Bush, Abbas and Olmert leave office are slim.
Moreover, in light of Hamas's control of Gaza and its threat to Fatah in Judea and Samaria, both the government and the Bush administration have argued that the agreement being negotiated will not be implemented even if it is concluded. It will only be implemented after Palestinian society accepts Israel's right to exist and agrees to live at peace with the Jewish state.
The agreement, they claim, will provide impetus to the Palestinians to accept Israel because it will commit all future governments to treat Judea, Samaria and parts of Jerusalem as Palestinian territory and so offset any lingering doubts about Israel's commitment to peace.
THE CONCERN has lately arisen that although the Palestinians will certainly not implement their side of the agreement, Israel will implement its pledged withdrawal from Judea and Samaria. This is the case for two reasons. First, unlike the situation with Syria, Olmert's support of the deal with Fatah is shared by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who is expected to succeed him, by Kadima and Labor and by the media. It is quite possible that they will argue that the existence of the agreement suffices to move ahead with their original intent to destroy Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria and expel their residents.
The concern that the Olmert-Livni-Barak government or its successor is planning to withdraw has increased in recent weeks, as military and police authorities have begun abrogating the legal rights of residents of Judea and Samaria in a way they haven't done since the expulsions from Gaza.
Two weeks ago, OC Central Command Maj.-Gen. Gad Shamni issued orders evicting three residents of Samaria from the area for four months. No criminal charges were filed against the three; they are suspected of no crimes; they have been arrested for no crimes. Yet the IDF has decided to expel them from their homes and separate them from their families by arguing that they are "provocateurs."
Last Tuesday, the men's supporters and families decided to stage a protest outside Shamni's house in Re'ut. The police had other ideas. A bus holding 50 protesters was stopped en route to the protest. Its passengers were arrested and brought to the police stations in Ramle and Modi'in and told they were being held due to suspicion that they were intending to attend an illegal demonstration.
There is of course, no crime on the books regarding a person's "intention" to participate in a demonstration. And yet the would-be demonstrators were held until the middle of the night. The last time such draconian actions were taken against law abiding citizens was in 2005 in the lead-up to the expulsions from Gaza.
The fear that the government is planning to begin expelling Israelis intensified on Sunday when, in a surprise move, the government convened a discussion of a bill setting out the levels of restitution those who are forced to leave their homes in Judea and Samaria will receive. Why would the government debate such a bill if it doesn't believe it is about to sign a deal with Abbas? And why would it debate such a bill if it truly intended to shelve its agreement until after the Palestinians eschewed their hopes for Israel's destruction?
THE SECOND reason justifying concern that the government is planning to withdraw from Judea and Samaria is due to the contrast between how the public views a withdrawal from the Golan and how it views a withdrawal from Judea and Samaria. Whereas the consistent majority view is
that the country is more secure with the Golan Heights than without it, since 1993 there has been sustained majority support for the view that we will be better off without large swathes of Judea and Samaria. This view has been cultivated by leftist activists and their supporters in the media who claim that Israel's chief strategic challenge is not the Iranian axis, but the presence of what they consider an unabsorbable Palestinian population in Judea and Samaria.
The belief that the Palestinians are the greatest strategic danger to the country is belied by reality. Putting aside the open question of whether they are truly incapable of integrating into Israel society or whether they challenge the country's identity as a Jewish state, the fact is that Judea and Samaria today constitute the least dangerous front Israel faces. And this is so because the IDF controls the area. Iran, Gaza, Lebanon and Syria are Israel's primary concerns today. And Gaza and Lebanon are dangers precisely because Israel followed the left's demographic and political arguments and surrendered them to Iranian proxies.
The fact that a majority has been convinced that the Palestinian population in Judea and Samaria is a critical threat just because it exists means that the threat of a withdrawal will remain acute until the Kadima-Labor-Shas triumvirate is driven from power in a general election and replaced by a Likud-led government and even then it will not abate. The threat will only abate if a Likud-led government is able to lead a public discussion about an alternative strategic assessment of Judea and Samaria.
Such an assessment would necessarily begin with the following assertions: Israel should not be rewarding the Palestinians for their aggression and has a duty to secure areas necessary for its national security. Such assertions engender the conclusion that far from ceding its rights to Judea and Samaria, Israel should apply its law to the parts of them that are critical to its defense, including Gush Etzion, Gush Adumim, Gush Ariel and the Jordan Valley.
To a degree that exceeds the dangers of Olmert's ill-advised talks with Assad, his talks with the Palestinians imperil the country by setting the conditions for disastrous withdrawals. Unfortunately, this danger will remain in place for as long as Israelis believe that our only viable option in Judea and Samaria is retreat.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.