Syrian President Bashar al-Assad recently called for the renewal of peace negotiations with Israel. He also proposed a "weapons of mass destruction free zone" for the Middle East, and then promptly called on Israel to give up its nukes. Israel's immediate response was the already stale reply, "We're willing to start negotiations without preconditions," the line it's taken for years. Then, Israel's President Moshe Katsav invited Bashar to meet in Israel, an offer that was promptly rejected.
But Israel should demand one precondition from Syria before the opening of negotiations. What you ask? Should Israel demand that Syria stop its support for Hizbullah attacks against her first? Should Israel demand that Syria stop its support for Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Hamas, and the other Palestinian terror groups based in Damascus first? Should Israel demand that Syria dispose of its chemical weapons first?
No, all those should also end...
But what Israel should stand firm on and demand, as the number one precondition to restarting the negotiations with Syria, is that it get out of Lebanon, which it has been occupying since 1976. Syria has been in violation of UN Security Council Resolution 520 since 1982, calling on them to leave Lebanon. The Syrians have "cannibalized" Lebanon for almost 30 years, in one of the most vicious occupations on record. Lebanon has been "virtually" absorbed into Syria.
This plan - to steal Lebanon - was announced as far back as August 26, 1973, when the former Syrian President Hafez al-Assad - Bashar's father - announced that Lebanon and Syria are one country and one people but with two governments. Hafez al-Assad's "Greater Syrian Dream" took shape then.
If Syria can slaughter over 20,000 of its own citizens in 1982 at Hama; if Syria can invade, terrorize, murder and occupy it's own Arab neighbor, Lebanon; how can Israel trust Syria in a peace arrangement? Syria must leave behind its brutal occupation of Lebanon, make amends, and prove that it's ready to join the family of nations, before Israel even considers returning to negotiations.
But Israeli prime ministers over the years haven't been too smart in dealing with Syria. Recently, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, "I hope it is clear to everyone that negotiations with Syria that start where they left off, means giving up the Golan Heights," basically, giving everything away at the start.
Sharon added, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad "can prove the seriousness of his intentions by responding positively to the world's demand to cease his support for global and regional terror and end his support for the terror organizations and then we will be happy to negotiate with him on every issue without any preconditions." Notice, he didn't even mention Syria's occupation of Lebanon.
By the way, Israel might have some passive responsibility in the Syrian occupation of Lebanon. According to an interview published by Haaretz (April 7th 1995), Gideon Raphael, Israel's ambassador to Great Britain at the time, stated that in 1976, former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin gave Syria his written approval allowing the Syrian forces to enter Lebanon.
According to Raphael, Rabin was notified by King Hussein of Jordan of Syria's plans to enter Lebanon. Raphael told the interviewer that he met with King Hussein on April 11, 1976, in London, at the King's request. Raphael said: "The King promised in the name of Hafez al-Assad, that the Syrian army will not deploy in southern Lebanon and that it will not even come close to the borders of Israel; that it will work to control the various armed Palestinian factions which might be planning to mount attacks against northern Israel from the Lebanese border."
Raphael added that the Syrian president promised Rabin that the Syrian operation will only target the Palestine Liberation Organization and that Syria will withdraw as soon as calm is restored. Raphael also stated that, in a letter addressed to the King of Jordan on April 28, 1976, Rabin gave his written consent for the deployment of the Syrian forces in Lebanon and that this letter is still in existence in the archives of the Prime Minister's Office.
By the end of May 1976, Syrian tanks crossed the Lebanese border never to leave. According to Raphael's statements, Hafez al-Assad could take such a bold move, knowing that Israel wouldn't create a problem for him.
Twenty-eight years later, Israel has the opportunity to correct its mistake by now demanding that Syria leave Lebanon "without preconditions". After the Lebanese regain control over their country; after Bashar proves he intends to fundamentally change Syria's policies; Israel and the international community can begin to take serious his peace overtures. As long as Syria continues to occupy Lebanon - a "brother" Arab state - one can only imagine what Bashar would do to the Jewish state if he could. Why trust him?
Since "The Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act of 2003" was approved by the U.S. Congress and U.S. President George Bush dropped his objections to it in mid-December 2003, Syria has come under increasing pressure. The bill's purposes are to (1) halt Syrian support for terrorism; (2) end the Syrian occupation of Lebanon; (3) stop Syria's production of Weapons of Mass Destruction; and (4) hold Syria accountable for the illegal Syrian-Iraqi trade, which provided Iraq with the weapons that killed American troops, and stop the flow of weapons and fighters into Iraq.
The Americans might be lukewarm about ending Syria's occupation of Lebanon, and might be less than total, in their demand to end support for Palestinian terror groups, but they sure do mean it when they say they want Syria's WMD capabilities eliminated, and Syrian support for the Iraqi anti-American resistance fighters ended. President Bush, in his recent State of the Union address - though he didn't mention Syria by name - said, "As part of the offensive against terror, we are also confronting the regimes that harbor and support terrorists, and could supply them with nuclear, chemical or biological weapons." Now we can understand Bashar's "half-hearted" peace overtures toward Israel, he's starting to feel the noose closing around his neck.
"We're interested in peace with Syria, but not in exchange for lip service meant to relieve Syria of the pressure it faces," Prime Minister Sharon told that Knesset Committee recently.
After Hizbullah's latest attack, Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom called on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to end his policy of using Hizbullah as a proxy against Israel and called for an end to the Syrian occupation of Lebanon.
"On one hand, Assad talks peace and on the other hand he uses his long arm - Hizbullah - in order to heat up our northern border," Shalom said. "The Syrian presence in Lebanon is intolerable and after 30 years the time has come for Syria to end its occupation of Lebanon," he concluded. This could be brought up during renewed talks with the Syrians, Shalom explained.
Now, Shalom has announced that he raised the issue with UN Secretary General Kofi Annan at the recent economic forum at Davos, and with the Australian foreign minister when he visited Israel, and he intends to raise it with other world leaders.
Finally, Foreign Minister Shalom just told the Israeli cabinet that his ministry has started to campaign for an end to the Syrian occupation of Lebanon. He said there are one million Syrians in Lebanon and "the time has come for the world to stop ignoring this fact."
Let's hope we soon hear Prime Minister Sharon begin to publicly demand loudly, "Syria must leave Lebanon without preconditions, now." Only after Lebanon is free of the vicious Syrian occupation - and an independent country again - will Israel be able to consider returning to negotiations with Syria, and with a free Lebanon.
Views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of israelinsider.