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-Asadís 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. ďAsad! Israel wants to talk,Ē the women chanted. And, less reverently, ďLetís visit Damascus -- by car, not by tank.Ē
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 Israelís 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 ďmade up his mind hastilyĒ to wage war in Lebanon and with dithering in ďenergetically pursuing paths to stable and long-term agreementsĒ with Israelís 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. ďIf President Asad says that Syria wants peaceÖdonít wait a single day longer,Ē Grossman advised Olmert at another Israeli protest against the Lebanon war. ďWhen you set out on the last [Lebanon] war, you didnít 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?Ē
The peaceniksí 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. Israelís police, for their part, directed that the organizers stage a ďgathering,Ē not a ďdemonstration,Ē 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 Israelís security establishment is on their side. In early summer appearances before the Knessetís 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. ďIsraelís 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,Ē 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 Syriaís leader as an untrustworthy naÔf unable to deliver the olive branches he proffered, besieged as he was by a coterie of ruthless, overbearing generals. Yet so rickety has been Olmertís 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 ďnot going to disappear.Ē