Egypt and Israel began peace overtures in 1977, after both had decided that the United States was part of the problem, not the solution.
President Jimmy Carter had just called for a joint U.S.-Soviet-sponsored Middle East Peace Conference, and the last thing Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin wanted at the table was the Soviet Union, which the Egyptians had just evicted.
Begin had been warned by people like Golda Meir that Sadat's offer to fly to Jerusalem was simply a ruse to conceal plans for another surprise attack, like the one he pulled off four years earlier on Yom Kippur. But Begin declared that Israel wanted peace, and he was willing to take risks and offer generous terms. He was true to his word — and it paid off.
Today, one of Begin's protégés occupies his old office, and it's the Syrians making the overtures, though not as dramatically nor as positively. And again, there are warnings it may be a con, that the Syrian president isn't serious and that he must take a number of steps to prove his sincerity.
Unfortunately, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is one of the doubters, and once again, the president of the United States is part of the problem, not the solution. George W. Bush says speaking to the Syrians would only reward them for bad behavior, and they must first repent and mend their ways. And the ever-obedient Olmert goes along with that.
Bashar Assad is no Anwar Sadat, but he has said he's ready for unconditional talks with Israel. In a mid-December interview, the Syrian leader told Rome's La Republica newspaper, "I say to Olmert: 'Take a chance. Discover if we are bluffing or not.' " His Washington embassy is circulating the quote.
Maybe he's not serious. But what if he is?
Bush has told Olmert to just say no. A similar message was delivered by a visiting congressional delegation in Jerusalem led by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.).
The administration fears that Assad is trying to drive a wedge between Washington and Jerusalem by offering to talk peace, but that his real motive is to relieve international pressure on his regime, including U.S. sanctions. Bush's goals are to stop Assad from rearming Hezbollah and helping the Islamic extremist group overthrow Lebanon's pro-Western government, and, most importantly, to end his aid for the Iraq insurgency.
Speaking to Syria — and its Iranian mentors — as the Iraq Study Group urged the president to do, would only reward bad behavior, in the view of the White House.
Assad doesn't help his own cause by talking of peace but offering no tangible evidence of his sincerity, while simultaneously threatening war, beefing up his anti-aircraft and anti-tank missile forces, hosting a variety of anti-Israel terror groups, and funneling arms to Hezbollah and Hamas.
It would be helpful to see some positive moves, like meeting publicly with Olmert or evicting Hamas leader Khalid Mashal. But how essential is that?
But instead of rejecting Assad's statements, Olmert should take his advice and call his bluff. Israel should never be in the position of looking like it's afraid to talk peace. If the Syrian dictator is just trying to score debating points, then the world should know that, and it should be reminded once again that Israel is the nation ready to go the extra mile for peace.
Speaking to one's enemies is not a sign of weakness or capitulation. The United States and Soviet Union did it regularly — and it probably prevented war more than once.
Those who say that Assad's words are a sign that U.S. pressure has been working — and should be ratcheted up — aren't looking for openings to make peace, but excuses to evade making the tough decisions and compromises peace demands.
Discussions with Syria can pay a variety of dividends for Israel. Successful negotiations could finally lead to peace with Lebanon, as well as undermine the anti-Israel extremist groups operating out of Damascus, and isolate the Palestinians and weaken Iranian influence in the region. Each reason alone is good enough to give it a try.
Meeting with Syria is far from a sure thing, but the potential benefits are simply too great for Olmert to follow Washington's misguided lead and keep Damascus in the deep freeze. u
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a Washington, D.C.-based columnist.