On December 4, Israel’s supreme court ruled that outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his Foreign Minister, Tzipi Livni, “may continue negotiating with Syria and the Palestinians over peace agreements” despite the caretaker, or transitional, status of their administration.
The High Court of Justice’s ruling negated a petition filed by Limor Livnat, a Knesset member of the minority Likud party, claiming that the concessions being offered Syria and the Palestinian Authority in the name of peace by the Olmert government were both dangerous and legally illegitimate.
“We are dealing with processes whose implications could significantly affect the country for many years to come,” Livnat said in the petition. “Such negotiations must not be conducted by a resigning prime minister.”
Olmert Facing Corruption Charges
Olmert resigned his post in September amid multiple charges of corruption. Foreign Minister Livni, who succeeded Olmert as head of the ruling Kadima party but was unable to form a coalition government in time to prevent the calling of a special election to replace the outgoing prime minister, has called on Olmert to leave office immediately, ostensibly so that he can face the charges against him as a private citizen, rather than as a member of the Knesset.
Should Olmert end up leaving office before the Israeli public votes on his replacement in February, Livni would become acting prime minister, and might make the deal with Syria before the election.
With the high court’s ruling, Olmert’s lame duck administration has free rein to continue his indirect negotiations with Syria and other enemies of Israel, offering concessions that will, as Livnat correctly said, “limit the maneuverability of the next prime minister” for the sake of Olmert’s “inappropriate in a bid to leave his mark on history.”
Unilateral Cessation of Territory
Olmert’s “inappropriate bid” includes an offer to unilaterally withdraw from the Golan Heights, a strategically important 450-square mile plateau between Israel proper and Syria which has been under Israeli control since the Six Day War in 1967. Syria, for its part, is reportedly holding out for the promise of a specific timetable for that withdrawal before agreeing to direct talks about a peace agreement.
This has prompted opposite reactions from the two men who are effectively (or, more accurately, ineffectively) serving as America’s co-presidents at this time. President-elect Barack Obama, according to the U.K. Times, “has said privately that the Israelis would be ‘crazy’ not to accept” Syria’s offer to consider participating in a conversation about peace with Israel in exchange for the latter’s surrender of an extremely significant strategic region.
Outgoing President George W. Bush, on the other hand, has expressed to Olmert his concern that Israel is offering to return the Golan Heights to Syria for nothing more than the promise of possible future considerations.
Granting Syria Undeserved Legitimacy
Terje Roed-Larsen, a UN envoy tasked with overseeing the implementation of UNSCR 1559 (ending the foreign army presence in Lebanon), recently complained to Israel’s UN delegation that, thanks to Olmert’s efforts, “Syria is receiving legitimacy for free.”
Larsen is correct. It is in large part because of Syria’s indulgence of Olmert’s eagerness to engage in preliminary peace talks that the European Commission has decided to extend the offer of a Partnership Agreement, or normalized relations, to Syria. The process of forging that partnership agreement began in 2000, but was halted until now after the 2004 assassination of Lebanese leader Rafik Hariri, which Syria may have ordered.
Olmert has refused to change his current course, despite the fact that, as Larsen said to the Israeli delegation, “Europe is courting the Syrians because of the negotiations with Israel, and they are no longer being asked to give anything in exchange.”
Repeating Prior Mistakes
Olmert’s rationale for giving away a strategically important area stems from his belief that conceding the Golan Heights to Syria at the outset of the peace process can provide a sufficient show of good faith to help pull the Arab state out of the grip of Iran and Hezbollah and into a more pragmatic alignment with Turkey, Israel, and other more moderate states.
Livni agreed with this view, declaring that a peace agreement between Israel and Syria would result in the latter cutting ties with Iran and Hezbollah, though Assad’s government denied outright that any such thing would happen. This statement by Damascus is most likely true, given the fact that Syria’s influence is largely through its support of terrorist organizations.
Pulling out of Golan and back to its 1967 borders would dramatically increase the danger to Israel’s homeland. In an era when Arab fighters are employing rockets and other standoff weaponry, such a move would, as Netanyahu pointed out, put the Iranian-allied Syria, and Iran’s terrorist proxy Hezbollah, on Israel’s doorstep. This would not only endanger Israeli citizens living near that border, but would also put major cities like Tel Aviv well within terrorists’ reach.
Surrendering Golan not the Answer
The notion that an Israeli withdrawal to the so-called “1967 borders,” surrendering the Golan Heights (as well as the West Bank of the Jordan River and the already-abandoned Gaza Strip), would precipitate something akin to peace in the region is sheer fantasy which, popular though it may be in diplomatic and left-of- center circles, belies a lack of the most basic understanding of history.
“Everyone agrees that the problem of the Golan Heights, taken from Syria by Israel in the 1967 war, is the main bone of contention between Syria and Israel and actually is not that hard to resolve,” wrote former U.S. Ambassador Dan Simpson in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette this week.
What “everyone” conveniently forgets when suggesting that such a concession would miraculously end the tensions between Israel and Syria is the overwhelmingly important fact that the Golan Heights were captured from Syria as a direct result of the Arab state joining the ranks of Israel’s opponents in 1967 and attacking the tiny Jewish state.
That simple historical fact begs the question that, if Syria’s possessing the Golan didn’t stop it from waging war on Israel at the time, why in the world would Israel’s surrendering the heights to Syria suddenly mend relations between the two countries?
The Definition of Insanity
When in Jerusalem in 2007, I asked I asked Olmert spokesperson Miri Eisen what her response would be to those who say that unilaterally making concessions is seen by Israel’s enemies as a sign of weakness which, like in Gaza, where the good-faith Israeli withdrawal of 2004 has been met with well over a thousand Palestinian rockets sent from the surrendered territory into Israeli cities, would serve only to embolden the fighters to strike harder.
Her response was altogether unencouraging. “We know that it is not weak,” she said, “because we know that there is strength in being able to make concessions even when it has not worked before.”
Wasn’t it Einstein who once said that “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”?