Natan Sharansky, a human rights activist and political prisoner in the former Soviet Union, is chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel. He is the author of “The Case for Democracy.”
Did Syria and Israel conduct secret talks in 2010 about a possible peace treaty involving a full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights? Recent news items — aimed at influencing Israel’s January elections — assert as much. But such discussions, usually secret and indirect, were going on for a long time.
In the four successive Israeli governments in which I served from 1996 to 2005, proposals were floated for giving up the Golan, or most of it, in exchange for peace with the dictatorial Syrian regime. As a rule, right-leaning governments stressed the need for Israel to maintain a position on top of the cliffs overlooking the Sea of Galilee, while left-leaning ones were prepared to settle for a few hundred feet of land along the eastern shore. The United States signaled that it would support any agreement acceptable to both sides.
If this history suggests anything, it is that Israelis, no less than other democratic peoples, are tempted by the illusion that lasting peace can be purchased by making concessions to tyrants who also happen to be implacable enemies.
A case in point: Upon being elected Israel’s prime minister in 1999, Ehud Barak put negotiations with Syria high on his agenda. In talks to form the new government, I represented Yisrael B’Aliyah, a party created by former Soviet dissidents and activists. As a condition of joining the coalition, our party demanded that any territorial concessions to Syria be linked to evidence of democratic reform in that nation. Our prospective coalition partners responded by mocking our naivete. Peace, they instructed us, was a matter to be decided between governments; it had nothing to do with a society’s internal arrangements. Nevertheless, we insisted that a letter be attached to the coalition agreement saying that members of the Yisrael B’Aliyah Knesset believe that the extent of Israeli concessions to Syria should be equal to the degree of openness, transparency and democracy in Syria. As far as I know, ours is still the only document in Israeli history linking official policy not to how our Arab neighbors treat Israelis but to how they treat their own people.
Attempts to overcome my “resistance to peace” continued, and soon after I joined Barak’s government as interior minister, I was approached by a major American Jewish philanthropist who had been instrumental in arranging private talks between Israelis and Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Liberation Organization. He offered to take me to Paris to meet an up-and-coming Arab leader. This man’s views, the American assured me, were close to my own. An intellectual and trained physician who uses the Internet, this man was also a believer in freedom, a seeker of peace and a determined bridge-builder. Plus, he was destined to become the next president of his country. Would this young leader, I asked, come to power by a democratic process, and would he agree in advance to govern by democratic rules? Of course not, came the reply; he will be appointed by his father, Hafez al-Assad. But once in power, he will lead Syria to a democratic future.