It is a fair rule in marriage, I suppose, that as long as the spouses are still talking there is hope. That is not a rule, however, capable of being extrapolated to international relations. Contrary to popular wisdom, it is not always better to talk to one's enemies.
The yakety-yak brigade is out again in full force. Various solons urge Israel to explore the "peace" feelers emanating from Damascus, on those days when Syrian President Bashar Assad is not threatening war. And a new American Jewish group is being formed with the goal of bringing back the heady days of the Clinton administration when talk was all the rage, and "friends" of Israel were busy encouraging Washington to lean on Jerusalem.
The presumption in favor of talk ignores the costs. Negotiations with no hope of success are not harmless illusions. Expectations are created, hopes raised. Something must fuel the process, and that something has traditionally been concrete Israeli concessions.
The incentive for talking often has little to do with achieving peace. Bashar learned from his wily father the value of an occasional peace balloon. Assad pere amused himself for decades at the expense of a string of hapless Warren Christopher types, who invariably rushed to Damascus at the merest hint of flexibility, thereby conferring unwarranted prestige on Assad and breaking Syria's isolation.
To be sure, Syria has a good deal to offer Israel - the cessation of arms transfers to Hizbullah, chilled relations with Iran, and the closing of its border to Iraqi insurgents. The theory goes that the Golan Heights is such a prize that Syria might pay the price. That is highly dubious. If Syria wanted the Golan so badly, the senior Assad would have granted Ehud Barak what amounted to little more than a bicycle path on the eastern shore of the Kinneret.
Yuval Steinitz has long argued that the senior Assad (and perhaps his son) had little interest in the Golan. The lack of an external enemy in Israel would imperil the country's domination by the Assads' minority Alawite sect (about 12% of the population). Moreover, peace with Israel would remove Syria's last pretext for maintaining its toehold in the Bekaa Valley, which is worth far more than the Golan.
Even assuming that Syria truly seeks the Golan, once it regained possession what would prevent it from reneging on its promises and resuming its role at the head of the Arab rejectionist front? Syria's first concern will always be its place in the umma, and peace with Israel is not at the top of the Muslim agenda.
Even if Assad remained on good behavior, what assurance do we have that his successors will hew to the same path? "Nations have no permanent friend or ally," Lord Palmerston reminds us, "they only have permanent interests." As long as Syria remains a police state and economic backwater, the interests of any regime will always require maintaining an external enemy - i.e., Israel.
Far from increasing Israel's security, the return of the Golan to Syrian control pursuant to a peace treaty would greatly increase the temptation of war. Starting near its own goal line, with Damascus within easy range of Israeli artillery, Syria presently faces major disincentives to war. Since 1973, the Israeli threat has preserved quiet on the Syrian front. But if Syria were to find itself once again overlooking the Galilee, with Israeli tanks far removed from its borders, its risk calculus would change dramatically. In short, Israel is far more secure and defensible with the Golan Heights and without a peace treaty than it would be with a peace treaty and without the Golan.
THE PALESTINIANS, like the Syrians, have every incentive to revive the "peace process," particularly the hope of renewed American and international aid. Mahmoud Abbas learned from his mentor Yasser Arafat that the mere willingness to talk is often enough to extract from Israel goodwill gestures and concessions. Each stop and start in the process is followed by new Israeli concessions in return for the same previously unfulfilled Palestinian promises.
Yet as long as nearly two-thirds of the Palestinian population support Hamas's refusal to recognize Israel's legitimacy talks with the Palestinians will lead nowhere. Even if a Palestinian leader of goodwill could be found, he would not be able to deliver peace, and any attempt to do so would likely cost him his life.
When international aid provided to the Palestinians is used to dismantle the refugee camps and build economic infrastructure rather than to pay the salaries of a dozen competing security services and 50,000 armed men -- in short, when Palestinians care more about their own well-being that destroying Israel -- peace is possible. The trashing of the Gaza hothouses epitomizes how far we are from that day.
Since the onset of Oslo, public opinion in Israel has undergone a sea change. A large majority has reconciled itself to a Palestinian state. On the Palestinian side, by contrast, nothing has changed. The "right of return," for instance, remains sacred doctrine today as it was in 1949. Part of the reason for that lack of change is that the Palestinians learned that they would be rewarded for just showing up at the bargaining table, without any commitment to peace or even to fulfill their specific promises.
The Bush administration has to some extent reeducated them on that score by refusing to be sucked into "process" for its own sake. A return to the mind-set of the Clinton years would thus reinforce all the wrong lessons.
And a rush to the bargaining table with Syria or the Palestinians would only provide the Arabs with more evidence of Israelis' mad desire for "peace" at any price and their continued susceptibility to any snake-oil nostrum that offers it.