Since their government has not, Shoshi Anbal and a posse of her fellow Tel Aviv housewives are preparing to engage in diplomacy with Syria. On May 18, they assembled along the Israeli-Syrian frontier to applaud what at the time was Syrian President Bashar al-Asad’s latest iteration of his call for negotiations to end the 40-year standoff over the Golan Heights, occupied by Israel in 1967, and indeed the legal state of war prevailing between the two states since 1948. “Asad! Israel wants to talk,” the women chanted. And, less reverently, “Let’s visit Damascus—by car, not by tank.”
Motivating the Israelis who took to the Golan in the name of the Israel-Syria Peace Society is not wanderlust, but fear for their sons, who fought a war on Israel’s northern front in the summer of 2006 that has been fiercely criticized by an Israeli commission of inquiry and the Israeli public at large. In preliminary findings released in early May, the Winograd commission charged Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert with having “made up his mind hastily” to wage war in Lebanon and with dithering in “energetically pursuing paths to stable and long-term agreements” with Israel’s foes. The red-haired Anbal, who helped spearhead the Golan rally, demands that the priorities be rapidly reversed, before her sons find themselves back on the battlefield.
Among the other Israeli campaigners are Sami Michael, an Iraqi-born writer still hoping for Syria to return the remains of his brother-in-law, the spy Eli Cohen, who was executed in Damascus, and the prominent novelist David Grossman, whose son was killed in the 2006 Lebanon war. “If President Asad says that Syria wants peace…don’t wait a single day longer,” Grossman advised Olmert at another Israeli protest against the Lebanon war. “When you set out on the last [Lebanon] war, you didn’t wait for even an hour. You charged in with all our might, with all our power to destroy. Why, when there is some sort of flicker of peace, do you immediately reject it?”
The peaceniks’ lofty ideals soon fell foul of reality. Hopes that Syrians might answer the Israel-Syria Peace Society with a simultaneous charm offensive on their side of the frontier were dashed when the Syrian authorities denied security clearance. Israel’s police, for their part, directed that the organizers stage a “gathering,” not a “demonstration,” limiting the number of people in attendance to 200 and the number of speakers to three.
Yet the activists remain upbeat, confident that much of Israel’s security establishment is on their side. In early summer appearances before the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, three out of the four top figures in that establishment, the heads of military intelligence, the National Security Council and the Foreign Ministry, called for engaging Syria. The only dissenter, the Mossad chief, Meir Dagan, expressed caution rather than outright opposition. Asad, he says, could cut ties with Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hamas in the event of a peace treaty with Israel, but not with Hizballah in Lebanon. A host of ex-officials, including a former director of military intelligence, Aharon Zeevi Farkash, have added their voice to the peace lobby.
With a few exceptions, the security establishment accepts that Israel did and therefore can survive without the Golan Heights. The 140 Israelis killed on the frontier in the 20 years before Israel captured the massif are a fraction of the several thousand who have died in the two direct wars and many indirect ones that Israel has fought in the ensuing four decades. Peace backed by an expansive demilitarized zone would offer a better defense. “Israel’s strategic posture would be better if we got down from the Golan and had a large separation between the armies. To cross the terrain to the Israeli border would expose the forces to Israeli air attack,” says Uri Bar-Joseph, a lecturer in intelligence studies at Haifa University. Any tanks escaping aerial bombardment would then have to negotiate narrow, steep ravines on their way to the Sea of Galilee, turning them into sitting ducks.
For months, Olmert stood his ground amidst the political pressure, reprimanding a series of ministers, from Defense on down to Infrastructure, when they publicly broke ranks to call for talks. Aides to the prime minister mocked Syria’s leader as an untrustworthy naïf unable to deliver the olive branches he proffered, besieged as he was by a coterie of ruthless, overbearing generals. Yet so rickety has been Olmert’s own edifice that the Israeli premier has found himself prone to being cast in similar terms. Indeed, Olmert might envy Asad his six years in office and his grasp on power, a grasp that, says an Israeli Foreign Ministry official, is “not going to disappear.”
Compounding the Rejection
Eighteen months at the helm of the Israeli government have been a rude and humbling awakening for Ehud Olmert. Riding a wave of sympathy for the incapacitated Ariel Sharon, to whom he was the designated successor, Olmert adeptly courted an electorate that had cheered Israel’s pullout from Gaza, and expected more withdrawals to come. In the horse trading that followed the March 2006 elections, Olmert cobbled together a coalition behind a withdrawal agenda that embraced two thirds of the Knesset and could expect to win support from Meretz, the three Israeli Arab parties and, for a financial price, United Torah Judaism. His official opposition, Likud (hitherto, the standard bearer of Greater Israel), was reduced to a paltry 12 members, or 10 percent, of the Knesset.
Yet, despite his crushing parliamentary majority and a platform promising more “disengagements,” Olmert shied away from direct or indirect contact with Syria, breaking with the practice of each of his predecessors for the previous 15 years. Direct talks had begun in 1993 after Secretary of State Warren Christopher handed Syria the “Rabin deposit,” a message from Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to the effect that “Israel is ready for full withdrawal from the Golan Heights provided its requirements on security and normalization are met.” The talks eventually failed in the spring of 2000, but after an interruption, indirect contacts resumed, even under the supremely hawkish Sharon. Eleven days into the Lebanon war, Syria restated its willingness to resume official talks, without—Israeli mediators relayed back to their leaders—preconditions, and without insisting that talks recommence from the high-water mark of the Rabin deposit. Olmert said no.
Olmert’s apologists insist that Asad’s offer was ill-timed, coinciding with calls from both the right and the left for an extension of Israel’s military campaign to Syria, perceived both domestically and internationally as the hidden hand behind the Lebanon war. The United States, in particular, pressured Israel’s politicians not to ease up on Damascus. But, in the months following the war, Asad continued to repeat the offer in a host of interviews and meetings with third parties, only for Olmert to compound the rejection by publicly vowing that “the Golan would remain Israel’s forever.” Again Olmert’s aides rushed to explain. “His words on Syria were simply rhetoric to appease the right,” said a long-standing ally. “Olmert understands he has to give up the Golan Heights. He’s one of the most pragmatic politicians in the Knesset. But he can’t open talks when he is under attack from the right wing, and has to strengthen his position in politics. He’s squeezed at the moment, but he will change.”
Damascus persisted. In January 2007, Syrians shared the floor with Israelis at a conference hosted by Madrid, designed to evoke the peace talks of 15 years earlier, to which a former Likud prime minister, Yitzhak Shamir, had given his grudging assent. But Olmert was too busy warding off official investigations into his handling of personal land deals to have leeway for national ones. Signaling his belief in long-term investment, his then-finance minister bought a plot of land for a house in a Golan settlement, Matzok Orvim.
Syrian officials, accustomed to being typecast as rejectionists, were nonplussed by the role reversal. Olmert’s predecessors had all, to a greater or lesser degree, engaged in public negotiations. The former leaders of Labor, his prime partner in government, had also done so publicly, under Rabin, Shimon Peres and Ehud Barak. Binyamin Netanyahu, the Likud prime minister between Peres and Barak, preferred secrecy, but had drafted Ron Lauder, the billionaire son of a perfumer and an influential Jewish American community leader, to shuttle between Jerusalem and Damascus. A Druze leader and Likud parliamentarian, Asad al-Asad, was also deployed to bring Druze from Syria to engage government officials.
And even Sharon had kept tabs on the progress of unofficial “Track II” talks initiated in the Turkish capital of Ankara during the visit of President al-Asad in January 2004. Staying by prior arrangement in the same hotel as Asad was Alon Liel, a jovial man who served as director-general of the Israeli foreign ministry under Barak, and had also been ambassador to Turkey. Sensing an opening, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyıp Erdoğan’s entourage brought Liel together with Ibrahim (Abe) Suleiman, a mild-mannered Syrian-American businessman who had been a veteran of back-channel negotiations since helping to engineer the emigration of Syria’s Jews to Israel in the 1990s. With his dual nationality, he straddled the political divide. As an ‘Alawi born in Qardaha, hometown of Syria’s ruling elite, Suleiman was also well-connected at the highest Syrian echelons, while his US passport facilitated his travel to Israel more than once. To bolster the Israeli representation, Liel also brought a former head of Israeli military intelligence, who has chosen to keep his silence, and a bombastic former director of research at Mossad with an insatiable appetite, Uzi Arad.
Within six months, the Turks had tired of the talks, and of Israeli reluctance to upgrade them to the official level. But the interlocutors quickly found a new host and sponsor, Nicholas Lang, then head of the Middle East desk at the Swiss Foreign Ministry. Lang insisted the delegates correct the mistake of the 2002 Geneva Accords between Israelis and Palestinians, in which he had also been instrumental, by keeping their respective governments fully informed. After three further meetings in Switzerland, Arad—a confidante of Netanyahu’s—withdrew, castigating the remaining participants as “salesmen dallying in the peace business.” In addition to the pampering in luxury hotels, he was, he said, frustrated that Syria had rejected his proposal for retaining the Golan under Israeli control. (He had proposed land swaps by which Jordan would cede land to Syria in return for Israel ceding to Jordan land in the Negev.) The talks continued regardless. Though all parties recall heated moments, they made rapid headway, encouraged by signals from the sidelines, not least the widely photographed handshake between President Asad and his Israeli counterpart at the grave of Pope John Paul II in April 2005. By August 2005 Liel and Suleiman had prepared the first draft of a Framework Agreement, providing for Israeli recognition of Syrian sovereignty on the Golan and its transformation into a Syrian demilitarized national park to which Israelis would have visa-free access and, crucially, a gradual timetable for a handover that Syria set at five years, and the Israelis at 15.
Their eighth, and last, meeting occurred 11 days into the Lebanon war, when Syria requested that contacts be upgraded to official “Track I,” at the level of deputy minister or director-general, in the presence of a US official. Lang shuttled between Damascus and Jerusalem, meeting Olmert’s chief of staff, Yoram Turbowitz. Asked to nominate an official to parley with the Syrians, Olmert kept mum. When the Israeli delegates leaked news of his recalcitrance to the press in January 2007, the prime minister dismissed Suleiman as a “hallucinatory” fellow. Undeterred, in April Suleiman journeyed to Jerusalem, where he was received by the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, but not by officials.
And behind the scenes the diplomatic dance reeled on. Contacts continued on a prisoner exchange that would include Israel’s two soldiers captured by Hizballah in July 2006. Ehud Barak, a past and present believer in direct negotiations whose advisers spearheaded the Track II talks in 2004-2006, joined Israel’s cabinet as defense minister. And ahead of the first anniversary of the Lebanon war, Olmert abandoned his earlier preconditions that Syria sever its strategic alliance with Iran, cut supply lines to Hizballah and expel Hamas leaders from Damascus, offering instead to meet Asad anywhere, anytime.
Whether or not this offer is a ruse is an open question. Olmert is fully aware both that Syria demands that a third party—the United States—attend any talks, and that Washington refuses to do so. Indeed, in remarks made to the al-‘Arabiyya satellite channel, the Israeli premier teased Asad about the three-way chase: “You know I am ready to hold direct negotiations with you and you also know that it’s you who insists on speaking to the Americans,” he said. “If you want to talk, sit down and talk.” On July 17, in a speech to the Syrian parliament after being sworn in for a second term, Asad laid down his terms for doing so: “We want Israel’s leaders to give guarantees that all of our land will be returned. We cannot enter into negotiations without knowing” that this would be the outcome. He added that a “third party”—Turkey, the Israeli press has suggested—had been laboring behind the scenes for months to convene Track I talks. Israeli officials fired back, suggesting Asad was backpedaling under pressure from the visiting Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The Syrian leader, said Olmert on July 21, was “setting a precondition. I can’t make any commitments before negotiating.” The Israeli premier then reiterated his desire for direct Israeli-Syrian contact, without “third-party” mediation.
Light Footprint, Dark Shadow
Weighing on Olmert is not just an obvious lack of enthusiasm in Washington, but a related skepticism among voters at home who still largely trust in the protective shadow of the Golan. Israel’s frontier with Syria has been its quietest for 40 years, without a shot fired in anger across the armistice line since 1974. The Sikh peacekeepers manning the 328-yard wide no-man’s land separating the two enemy states relieve the boredom on weekends with barbecues on the eastern banks of Lake Tiberias. Raised on schoolbooks that define the Golan as an irreplaceable buffer against Damascus’ predations, few Israelis see any reason—despite the assurances of the defense establishment—to challenge the status quo.
Indeed, of all Israel’s occupied territories, the Golan has been the most manageable. Unlike the West Bank, with its 1.8 million Palestinians, the natives are not restless, and pose neither a demographic nor a security threat. (This is in large part because all but 6,000 of the 100,000 Syrians in the Golan before the 1967 war were chased from their homesteads during Israel’s invasion. “Frightened by incidents such as shooting in the air and the rounding up of civilians,” wrote the UN’s Special Representative, Nils Gussing, six weeks after the war, “the Israel Defense Forces had not viewed unfavorably the impact on the movement of the population.” Thereafter they were barred from return.) Stripped of its non-Jewish population, the Golan fulfils the classic Zionist dream of a land without a people.
For a stretch of terrain that could spark the next Middle East conflagration, the Golan displays scant signs of conflict. Without a large population to subdue, there are no towering separation walls and lookout battlements to scar the landscape, nor are there checkpoint complexes and settler-only roads to disrupt free passage. Instead, the Golan’s young rivers chuckle through its forested uplands, and its signposts point to nature trails, ski slopes and boutique wineries. Its settlers are similarly removed from the stereotype of the gun-toting zealot tormenting the West Bank. In newspaper advertisements, the Golan settlers portray themselves as cattle-rustling horsemen harking back to a bygone breed of Zionist pioneer, the secular, left-wing pastoralist whose natural home is the kibbutz.
The initial plans were that the Golan would be as liberally sprinkled with settlements as the West Bank is today. Backed by Labor, settlers moved to the Golan five weeks after the 1967 war, long before they camped out in Hebron. Within six months the Jewish Agency, the Zionist equivalent of the PLO, was touting a plan for the Golan’s colonization with 50,000 Jews. That the Golan was not so heavily colonized is largely due to the elections of 1977, whose victors, Likud, redirected their settlement program toward the biblical land of Israel, of which Israel’s chief rabbi, Shlomo Goren, declared the Golan was not part. To this day, the forlorn remains of the Syrian past survive: the ruins of black basalt villages, crumbling minarets, rusting tank hulks and abandoned grasslands. After 40 years, the Golan has 18,000 settlers, a mere 4 percent of the numbers in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
Though Israel’s footprint in the Golan remains light, its settlers have proved highly successful in arousing the sympathies of an Israeli public anxious to retain its edenic playground. Twice in the last decade, the Golan lobby rallied against Israeli leaders poised to sign treaties with Syria, and won. Further complicating any attempts to evacuate them will be new communities of religious militants that Israel relocated from Gaza. Though few in number, these resettled settlers burn with revenge at their eviction. “The next exodus will not happen so easily,” says Maayan Yadai, a Croatian-born housewife whose containers from Gaza continue to litter the lawns of the Avnei Eitan settlement. “We will inspire the Jews of the Golan to rise up against the infidel government.” Messianic settler leaders speak of an iniquitous Knesset soiled by corruption and plot to replace it with the Sanhedrin, the Jewish legislative body of Second Temple times.
Their zeal is boosted by a small number of mechinot, or military seminaries, which teach both Torah and marksmanship to young Jewish boys, who enact mock bombing runs on Damascus over lunch. Though the mechinot are by no means mainstream among the settlers, there is evidence that their brand of Jewish religious attachment to the Golan is gaining ground. A film, on show in the settlers’ new visitor center in Katzrin, promotes the Israeli claim to the Golan, on the grounds of its high concentration of ancient synagogue remains, preserved by the hard basalt rock. A Talmudic archaeological village has been opened nearby. And in the 2006 elections, one in five Golan settlers voted for the far-right National Religious Party, more than voted for Labor, the traditional party in these parts.
Strong leadership can overcome the weight of public opinion. Menachem Begin defied the Israeli public, which on the eve of his treaty with Egypt was overwhelmingly opposed to returning all of Sinai, and eventually won strong support for the deal. For Olmert to gain the backing of the 30-40 percent of the population who support a deal on Syria would cause his lackluster popularity ratings, currently bogged down in single digits, to take a quantum leap.
Harder to overcome, however, is the combination of internal and external opposition. For beyond the Golan, the religious contours were also being redrawn, with similar consequences for Israeli-Syrian engagement. With sectarian tensions in Iraq infecting the decisions of policymakers across the region, Israel found increasing cause with the Sunni Arab camp in opposition to an Iranian-led alliance, in whose embrace Syria is firmly located. In interviews, Israel’s closest Arab ally, King ‘Abdallah of Jordan, enjoined Israel to remain focused on the Palestinian track, dismissing other tracks as a “smokescreen.” Saudi Arabia, the engine of Arab diplomacy and author of the 2002 Arab League initiative for a comprehensive peace, similarly kept its distance, particularly after Syria was fingered as the prime suspect in the murder of its protégé in Lebanon, Rafiq al-Hariri. “We’ve received clear messages from moderate Arab states that the Saudi initiative is a Palestinian process, not a Syrian process,” said an Israeli diplomat.
For reasons primarily related to Syrian opposition to its policies in Iraq and Lebanon, the Bush administration backed, and sometimes engineered, Syria’s isolation. “The message was unmistakable,” said a senior Defense Ministry official after a visit to Washington. “The US does not want Israel to engage in anything with Syria.” Courting Syria, noted Mossad chief Meir Dagan, would be “a stab in the back for the United States.” Without a US green light, negotiations with Syria threatened to cost Israel not just the good will of its closest ally, but also the package of financial and military incentives that the US had hitherto offered Israel for a peace treaty.
How solid that wall of opposition remains is fiercely debated. At the 2007 Arab summit in Riyadh, King ‘Abdallah of Saudi Arabia greeted Asad at the airport (a traditional gesture of respect) and in turn won Asad’s renewed support for his initiative to normalize Arab-Israeli relations in return for a withdrawal from the 1967 occupied territories and resolution of the Palestinian refugee issue. The departure of President Jacques Chirac, a personal friend of Hariri, helped facilitate fresh EU moves toward rehabilitating ties with Syria. At a July roundtable meeting in Brussels, the European Union hosted Syria’s senior legal adviser Riyad Da’udi and a senior Israeli parliamentarian and Barak ally, Ophir Pines-Paz, to discuss a mechanism for relaunching a peace process. In contrast to his predecessor, whose repeated requests to engage Syria were blocked by the UN in New York, the UN’s new envoy to the Middle East, Michael Williams, has visited Damascus. Washington, too, has tentatively loosened its political boycott. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met her Syrian counterpart, Walid Mu‘allim, on the sidelines of the early May Sharm al-Sheikh gathering to discuss Iraq. Prominent Jewish American community leaders (albeit, for the most part, Democrats) shuttled to Damascus. If the US, the UN, Europe and Saudi Arabia are all talking to Syria, they could hardly quibble should Israel do the same.
The parties remain divided on Syria’s insistence on a third-party role for the US, however. Although President George W. Bush continues to insist that Washington will not broker negotiations, there remains the prospect that Damascus might accept an understudy. Banking on his close rapport with Bush, Israeli mediators are proposing that Tony Blair, the new Quartet envoy, might be a sufficiently prominent international interlocutor to overcome Syrian chagrin at Washington’s absence.
Apples and Brides
Indeed, on the ground, there are already signs of tentative engagement after the tensions of the Lebanon war. As in the past, the parties have used people shepherded across the armistice lines by the Red Cross as a barometer of their intent. During the 1990s, busloads of Golan Druze students crossed the border headed for Damascus University. Hundreds of sheikhs made the pilgrimage to the shrine of the Druze saint, Abel. During the Netanyahu years, thousands of tons of Golan apples also made the journey, surfacing in the souks of Damascus and the Gulf. Under Sharon, scores of Druze couples from across the divide were allowed to marry in no-man’s land.
Olmert’s tenure has witnessed an unprecedented traffic. Students, sheikhs and apples are traveling in greater numbers than at any time since 1967. Significantly, Druze women from the Golan, as well as men, are now also crossing over to begin married life inside Syria.
Though Syrian and Israeli intelligence separately approve wedding guest lists and food arrangements inside no-man’s land, emotions pent up over 40 years can defy the best-laid plans. “All of you back! Your screams won’t help you,” barks a soldier attempting to tick off the ID cards of the wedding guests pressing against the wire-mesh gates in their finery. “For God’s sake!” the girls scream back at him, tears etching tracks in a paste of mascara tinged with eyeliner. In her strapless white dress, the 25-year old bride interrupts the wedding procession to remonstrate with Israeli officers for more bridesmaids. Amid the sweetmeats and strawberries inside no-man’s land, relatives cram a lifetime of lost emotion into 40 minutes, before a Red Cross megaphone snaps the jollity asunder. “Time’s up. Please take your rubbish with you.” Boys and girls linger, blowing kisses as the soldiers impatiently wave them back to separation after their brief taste of family reunion.
For the Druze, coming from both the Syrian and Israeli sides of the frontier, the truncated nuptial celebrations are a portent of the benefits a peace treaty might bring. For the 20,000 Druze in the Golan, peace holds out the prospect of future family—not just bridal—reunions, currently prohibited by Israel, and an end to their 40-year limbo wherein one side or the other suspects them of collaboration. With an open-door policy, the Druze—most of whom are bilingual in Hebrew and Arabic—could look forward to the day when their villages might become not a cul-de-sac, but a stopover on a trade route. Released from Israeli planning restrictions, businessmen dream of vistas of emerging hotels and a share of the Gulf tourism market heading for the hills above Beirut and Damascus.
For Israel, the crossing offers a gateway not just to Syria, but through Turkey to Europe, Russia and Central Asia two continents beyond, something neither peace with Egypt nor Jordan allowed. A land bridge to two continents provided by the standard bearer of the Arab boycott would dissipate the claustrophobia that has gnawed at Israel’s national psyche since its inception, and open up countless opportunities. Among the projects advanced by mediators is a pipeline carrying water by force of gravity from the Turkish uplands to the southern Levant, amply compensating for the Banyas tributary that Israel would hand back with the Golan.
And for Syria, the traffic portends a long-awaited road not just to the United States, but also back to the Golan. Forty years on, Syrians displaced from the Golan still have a Golan’s Fishermen’s Association, and in the town of Batiha near Damascus, fishmongers still cry anachronistically, “Fresh fish from Tiberias.” Already the passage of hundreds of Golan’s Druze in and out of Syria has enabled Damascus to revive its presence. According to community leaders, the Baath Party is again the best-organized political group among the Golani Druze. In the summer of 2006, Damascus halted construction of a Red Cross health center in Majdal Shams, a Druze town, after it would not fly a Syrian flag. Damascus pays teachers, apparatchiks file reports and, at weddings, the ubiquitous black leather jackets—the livery of Syria’s mukhabarat—monitor the guests. “Local Baathists control the public and political affairs,” says a local NGO worker. “Damascus treats the local population like political pawns.” Decrying Israel’s ebbing control, the daily Maariv declared in a banner headline, “Syria has annexed the Golan by stealth.”
An Unnerving Cold War
What will happen if the parties miss another opportunity to agree on the massif’s status? “My personal opinion, my hopes for peace, could one day change,” noted Asad in an interview with Der Spiegel in September 2006. “If this hope disappears, then war may really be the only solution.” Israeli security chiefs past and present have echoed his fears of again closing the door. “What is the Syrian president supposed to think when he hears Olmert?” asked a former Mossad chief, before the Israeli premier had signaled his interest in talks. “Perhaps he will be tempted to follow Sadat’s lead in an attempt to shake us from our complacency and initiate a limited military campaign that will cost us dearly.”
Where Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat waged a conventional war in 1973, Asad’s aides have looked more favorably on the asymmetric wars that garnered such political capital for Hizballah and Hamas. Rapid urban construction between the six-mile wide demilitarized lines—according to the UN, up to 100,000 Syrians now live there—has unnerved Israeli officials. Intelligence officers warn that Syria could use them as cover for a Hizballah-style guerrilla raid, for instance, to capture one of the Druze towns on the border or abduct an Israeli soldier. In recent months, names have surfaced of groups, such as the Front for the Liberation of the Golan Heights, purporting to be planning armed resistance, though thus far their impact has been limited to the airwaves. “Some people talk enthusiastically about getting into this [armed resistance on the Golan]…. This [Lebanon] war emphasized that option,” Asad told Dubai television shortly after the war.
The bare hint that Israel’s quietest frontier could morph into a front as porous as Syria’s borders with Lebanon and Iraq inspires Israeli officials to warn of retaliation without restraint. But such arguments only underscore the risks of continuing the cold war with a country that has a chemical arsenal poised to strike most points in Israel, notwithstanding the risk that prevailing winds would blow noxious clouds back over Syria. Israeli generals exchanged conflicting intelligence analyses on the likelihood of a summer war “ten times worse” than the Lebanon war, based on intelligence claims ranging from an Iranian-financed program to upgrade Syria’s armed forces to Damascus’ removal of military checkpoints en route to the Golan border. And across their respective frontiers, both Syria and Israel have conducted wargames in July. “Missiles could disrupt the lives of millions and knock out major infrastructure,” screamed Israel’s largest daily, Yediot Aharonot, in mid-July.
In the heady war fever, a few cooler heads are struggling to make their voices heard. “The question is: Do we begin negotiations now, or in six months’ time, after an increase in tension?” asks a prominent Syrian-born parliamentarian, Israel Hasson, who, as a member of the right-wing party Yisrael Beiteinu, is hardly a usual suspect. “Syria has many ways of raising the threat level—a mere mention of missiles, for instance. The question is: Do we need a confrontation to get us to the same endgame, or can we do it without?”