October 26, 2012

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.

Today, no one with eyes to see can deny who and what Bashar al-Assad is: a believer not in freedom but in the certainty that, like his father before him, he can kill hundreds of his own people every day and that the world’s free democracies will not stop him.

Suppose that the Israeli peace movement had gotten its wish years ago and the Assad dynasty, faced with the prospect of obtaining all but a sliver of the Golan free and clear, had agreed to forgo a few hundred square meters of land. What benefit would Israel or the suffering Syrian people have reaped? In today’s violent circumstances, with a tacit detente still in place between Jerusalem and the tottering regime in Damascus, Israel would have earned the enmity of Syria’s Islamic extremists as well as Syrian liberals, democrats and the masses of ordinary citizens straining for freedom. Meanwhile, Assad would enjoy the strategic depth of a secure military redoubt on the heights above the Sea of Galilee, an ideal spot for sequestering his chemical and biological weapons — whose poison payload could be dumped, at a moment’s notice, into the waters below.

One need not indulge in nightmare scenarios to raise the pressing question: Have the horrors being perpetrated in Syria, let alone the dismal aftermath of the revolts in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, roused Western governments and opinion makers from their blind faith in dictatorial regimes as a force for stability or reform? Both U.S. presidential candidates have spoken of the importance of tying financial and diplomatic support from the free world to evidence of democratic reform in the Arab world. One senses minds beginning to change. Thomas Friedman recently wrote of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the new government in Libya: “We cannot let them come to us and say: ‘We need money, but right now our politics is not right for us to do certain things. Give us a pass.’ ” Instead, Friedman said, we must support only those who have verifiably instituted a full agenda of reform, those who “voluntarily want to be on our side.” In other words: linkage, without exception or free passes.

All of this is well and good, as far as it goes. But a policy of linkage is not a matter of a campaign, or a season, or a year. Nor can it be selective. It must be unwavering and consistent for many years, applied with as much force to Saudi Arabia and the Palestinian Authority as to Egypt and Libya. Needed from the governments of the free world is a combination of pressure and encouragement, two instruments aimed as one at nurturing the spread of free institutions, the rule of law and democratic institutions in all areas of civic life. Only under conditions in which sufficient numbers of citizens are prepared to fight to preserve their hard-won freedoms can one begin to imagine the advent of truly representative governments in the Arab world or to speak, hopefully, of a lasting springtime for the Arab peoples.