This week The Los Angeles Times published an investigative report exposing the depth of Syria's collaboration with Saddam Hussein in the years, months and indeed weeks and days preceding the US-led invasion of Iraq last March.
The report, which ran under the headline "Paper trail leads to Syria as Iraq's main arms link," is nothing less than devastating to the Ba'athist regime in Damascus. Documents procured by the Times show that a Syrian trading company called SES, which is run by Syrian dictator Bashar Assad's cousin, signed more than 50 contracts "to supply tens of millions of dollars' worth of arms and equipment to Iraq's military shortly before the US-led invasion."
For its part, Washington is taking seriously the growing body of evidence of Syria's present role as a financier of the current insurgency and an assembly point for terrorists en route to Iraq. Sources close to the administration have told me that the Bush administration is "planning to deal harshly" with Syria after the presidential elections in November. An invasion of Syria bringing about the overthrow of Assad's minority regime, they say, is being carefully considered.
The US's newfound understanding of Syria's hostility is a good thing for Israel. Throughout the 1990s, the US ignored Syria's links to terrorism and its non-conventional arsenals. All Syria's late dictator Hafez Assad had to do to get off the US blacklist was send a handful of soldiers to Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War and, in its aftermath, declare that he "had made a strategic decision for peace."
This was a lie, as his sponsorship of Hizbollah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other terrorist organizations showed. But during the 1990s, the US was as willing as Israel to pretend that the underlying character of a regime and its actual sponsorship of terrorism were unimportant. What mattered, in other words, was what Syria said, not what it did.
So it is strange that while Assad is increasingly viewed as an enemy of the US, our politicians and policymakers are discussing seriously the possibility of renewing negotiations for the transfer of the Golan Heights to the Ba'athists in Damascus in exchange for a peace treaty. Rather than dismissing Bashar Assad's opportunistic declaration to The New York Times that he is interested in negotiating with Israel, our foreign minister and his underlings are acting as though this proposal by a drowning tyrant should be taken seriously. The argument now being sounded in Jerusalem is that Israel should take advantage of Syria's weakness to forge a deal that it wouldn't be making if it were in a better bargaining position with the US.
This is the same rationale used by Yossi Beilin and Shimon Peres in 1993, when they went about secretly negotiating the Oslo accords with the PLO. The PLO had supported Saddam in the Gulf War and was being properly punished for this strategic error by the US and the Gulf States. Abandoned by its Arab allies in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, the PLO, stranded in Tunis, was poised to become irrelevant.
The intifada petered out by 1992 and local Palestinians in Judea, Samaria and Gaza were beginning to shake-off their fear and dependency on Arafat's money and thugs.
When Israel successfully excluded the PLO from the negotiations which began in the wake of the 1992 Madrid Conference, the chance that a new Palestinian leadership willing to co-exist with Israel would arise was becoming a real possibility.
Ignoring these trends, Peres and Beilin and their in-house academics went to Tunis and Oslo, forged a deal with the PLO, and the rest is history.
One of the most disturbing themes in Israel's relations with the Arab states and the Palestinians is our consistent inability to see beyond a two-dimensional reality of how things currently appear. In the wake of the Gulf War and the end of the intifada, the Palestinians in their weakness declared the PLO their sole representative. Rather than see this as the bluff it was, Peres and his deputies embraced Arafat when they should have been cultivating a new leadership not dedicated to Israel's destruction.
Similarly today, according to IDF Chief of General Staff Lt. Gen. Moshe Ya'alon, Hamas is currently not engaging in suicide bombings because its leaders fear being killed by the IDF. Yet rather than chasing, arresting and killing these terrorists while they are on the run, our government leaves them alone to plot attacks in the future.
The Syrian dictatorship has never been more in danger of overthrow by the US. Yet our foreign minister, rather than encouraging its downfall, is publicly discussing sending it a lifeline.
The underlying problem with all of our analyses is that no one in our military, political, diplomatic or intellectual leadership seems to have a vision for a future where there could be Arabs in positions of power who actually would like to live in peace with us.
Case in point is our treatment of the Iraqi National Congress in the 1990s. As The Jerusalem Post reported last week, the head of the INC, Ahmed Chalabi, now the most senior member of the Iraqi Governing Council, met with Binyamin Netanyahu while he was prime minister and offered to cooperate with Israel. According to Chalabi, Netanyahu responded to the offer by suggesting that Chalabi meet with the head of the Mossad. Chalabi told the Post that he had been deeply offended by Netanyahu's response. Rather than cultivating him as an ally, Chalabi felt he was being brushed off as nothing more than a potential spy.
One of the things that distinguish US President George W. Bush is a clear vision of where he wants to move the world. He is not simply leading a war against terror; he is leading a war for freedom and democracy in the Arab and Muslim world. The names his administration has chosen for its campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq – Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom – describe not the overthrow of the Taliban and the Ba'athists, but what those overthrows intend to achieve.
In stark contrast, the name Israel gave to our one major offensive against the Palestinian terrorist regime was Operation Defensive Shield. The aim was to increase the margin of safety, rather than make the world a better one.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's supporters note that he has not actually given the Palestinians anything concrete in their war against Israel. He is, they say, playing for time, understanding that the new regional situation being created by the US is working in Israel's favor. If so, Sharon is not helping things along by standing in place. He should be actively assisting the US in rearranging our region in a manner that will be conducive to freedom and democracy in the Arab world and peace for Israel.
In Washington, a group of Syrian dissidents have formed a political party in exile called the Syrian Reform Party. Its leaders envision a Syrian democracy being formed after the overthrow of Assad and the Ba'athists that will live in peace with Israel. Our diplomats and intellectuals should be actively engaging these Syrian patriots and cultivating ties with them as potential allies.
In Jordan, Prince Hassan told the Italian newspaper La Stampa Monday, "From my perspective, Jordan should include all the Palestinians.
"Israel, Palestine and Jordan should enjoy the same sort of interdependence as there is in the Benelux countries," Hassan said.
This is an interesting vision, which is apparently supported by members of the Iraqi Governing Council angry at the support the Hashemite regime gave Saddam Hussein over many years. The government and our other elites should be talking to Hassan and his colleagues, rather than wondering when Ahmed Qurei is going to get serious about opening barren d
iscussions with Israel about the establishment of a terrorist state in our midst.
Outside of the Arab world, Israel has shown visionary leadership. In the 1990s, Israel developed close alliances with Turkey and India, two other non-Christian democracies that are today wedge states in the global battle against Islamic terrorism. It was Israel's strategic embrace of these two countries that paved the way for their now strong ties with the US.
It is true that it was Ariel Sharon, who in a visionary move in 1982 attempted to bring about new leadership in Lebanon. His initiative failed not because it was unwise, but because the US was unsupportive. In 1982 the Reagan administration, embroiled in the Cold War, failed to acknowledge the threat of jihad and the need for regime change in the Arab world even after the US itself fell victim to these forces in Beirut. But September 11 changed all that.
Israel is the US's staunchest ally in the Middle East. As a liberal democracy which understands the need for strength to protect our way of life, we share common values as well as common enemies. But our leadership's lack of a vision for cultivating, encouraging and supporting our friends in the Arab world harms not only our safety. It degrades our ability to contribute meaningfully to the US-led war to make our region peaceful and free.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.