Friday, August 14, 2020 -
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Negotiating out of weakness

Sometimes you have no choice but to negotiate. Lyndon B. Johnson would have told you after it became clear that he would not beat John F. Kennedy for the Democratic nomination for the presidency in 1960. Sometimes, you don’t even have that: At Appomattox, surrender was the only option. And sometimes, negotiating out of weakness yields a surprising triumph. In the Middle East, this occurs at Israel’s expense, to the benefit of her enemies. The ironic twist here is that Israel negotiates not out of her own weakness, but out of someone else’s — a proven, bad strategy.

Case in point: the post-first Gulf War period. Repeat case in point: the current, proposed Israel-Syria negotiations.

The first Palestinian intifada began in 1987. It was fueled by local Palestinians, who later came under the umbrella of Hamas. The Palestinian Liberation Organization was left out in the cold. Ensconced in Tunis since its miserable loss to Israel in Lebanon in 1982, the PLO was at its lowest point. Its strategy?

Signal a willingness to recognize Israel — sort of — and to negotiate. With this, the PLO recaptured its status. Everyone from the State Dept. to the EU came a-running to do its bidding.

The result was the Madrid peace conference in 1991 and the “Oslo Process” begun in 1993.

The result of all that was deadly for Israel: the beginning of her gradual decline in deterrent power, the gradual rise of Hamas and Hezbollah, the seeds of overwhelming terrorism against Israel.

Now, once again, Israel is unwisely doing the bidding of another Arab power signaling its willingness to negotiate out of weakness. This time, it’s worse, since Israel’s own military power is, for the first time, in doubt.

Under the least popular (and possibly the first criminal) prime minister in Israeli history, Israel is running to do Syria’s bidding. According to widespread reports, Israel has already agreed to return the entire Golan Heights to Syria even before negotiations have actually begun.

Now, as in 1991, there is an Israeli rationale for negotiating. In 1991, Israel finally would be recognized by the Arab world, would sign peace treaties with all Arab states, and would live in peace. All this proved to be an illusion. The Palestinians were never serious about recognizing Israel. Even if a few did, the rest didn’t. Even if we grant that the PLO was sincere then, the PLO did not carry the day. Hamas arose. Hamas swears to destroy Israel, just as the founding PLO charter said.

Note well: All this is not mere history. The present Syrian plan is based on the 1991 Madrid peace conference. The same dynamics that led to the discredited Oslo process will now govern the Israel-Syria negotiations.

Syria negotiates out of weakness in the sense that she needs, or at least wants, the Golan Heights, as well as restored influence in Lebanon. Israel also has real needs that, supposedly, Syria can fulfill: the cessation of the flow of arms and influence from Iran to Hezbollah in Lebanon and to Hamas, headquartered in Damascus. And so, the theory runs, Israel will give up the Golan Heights and gain, in return, freedom from Iranian animus and arms.

A sober assessment reveals that Israel is overly impressed with Syria’s willingness and ability to deliver. Just how is the cessation of Iranian arms flow to Hamas and Hezbollah to be monitored? Even more important, what is to be done if Syria welshes? Israel’s only option would be to go to war. As we’ve seen with the rearming of the Palestinians by Hamas and of the Lebanese by Hezbollah, going to war is not a good option. In fact, as a diplomatic back-up, it’s a contradiction in terms.

Israel’s willingness to negotiate in response to Syria’s weakness only highlights Israel’s own weakness — her lack of realistic alternatives if Syria doesn’t keep her part of the bargain. That is why it is unwise for Israel to negotiate with Syria now.

And perhaps ever. For the past 34 years, Israel’s border with Syria is its quietest border. Leave well enough alone.

As for the vaunted benefits of a Syria freed of Iranian influence, we think it’s a pipe dream. Syria is weaker than Iran, and Iran will do what it wishes with or without a Syrian sincerity to halt Iran’s aid to Hezbollah and Hamas.

Basically, the proposed Israel-Syria negotiations represent the Israeli failure to face up to Iran. For Israel, as well as for the US and Europe, we don’t see any realistic alternative to military action against the Iranian nuclear program. Anything else is a diversion.

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