Can Israel and Syria avoid war

Normally, talk of peace stirs hope. However, when it comes to peace talks between Israel and its implacable enemy, Syria, no one should get his or her hopes up.

Every hour the headlines change: Syria is massing troops along its border, preparing for war. Israel is opening secret back-channel negotiations with Syria through a third party. Syria wants peace. No, Syrian officials claim the Syrian people want to reclaim the Golan Heights by any means necessary.

Whatever the truth, as our story this week suggests, the status quo between the two countries is rapidly disintegrating. Mutual distrust remains sky-high, and options have dwindled. Either the two forge a peace deal — which almost certainly would mean Israel relinquishes the Golan —or they may go to war.

Israel does not want war. Therefore, the Israeli press has hinted Israel may indeed soon engage in bilateral negotiations with Syria, the first such talks in seven years.

Though Prime Minister Ehud Olmert downplays the idea, Israeli officials have weighed in on the pros and cons of negotiating with Syrian dictator Bashar Assad. Cabinet minister Shaul Mofaz, for one, argues in favor of a “secret channel” with Syria to diffuse tensions.

Despite Assad’s dubious calls for talks, Israel has no reason to trust the Damascus regime. Syria is arming itself to the teeth with weapons from Iran and Russia. Iran remains Assad’s behind-the-scenes puppet master, both politically and militarily, and the world couldn’t be clearer about Tehran’s dream to wipe Israel off the map.

Some analysts predict that the politically weak Assad, believing Israel to be weak, may try to spark a “Gulf of Tonkin” incident in the Golan. Others believe cooler heads will prevail and that Damascus will cut a deal — not because it truly desires peace but because the regime seeks to re-enter the world community.

If Israel ends up ceding the Golan, we are confident it would happen only after institutionalizing the most stringent security measures possible. This way, even if Syria wanted to stage an attack from the Golan Heights, it would be unwise to do so.

While we don’t pretend to know the thinking of decision-makers, the underlying motivations for talks matter less than the infrastructure for peace that would result. Assad may secretly wish to destroy Israel, but if the mechanisms for an internationally sanctioned treaty hold over the long term, then Israel wins.

And that’s what matters to us.