Peace at Any Price

The Israeli government is engaged in a frantic search for peace. Peace with Mahmoud Abbas, even a shelf agreement, and peace with Syria.


By Moshe Arens

(A version of this column appeared in Haaretz on May 6, 2008.)

The Israeli government is engaged in a frantic search for peace. Peace with Mahmoud Abbas, even a shelf agreement, and peace with Syria. That seems like the most natural thing in the world. After all, as the saying goes, “Peace is better than war.” And if these are the alternatives, that choice seems the correct one. But if we have learned anything from history, it is that even that is not always true. Some past peace agreements have served as invitations to war.

But Israel at this time, even while engaged in a war with the Palestinians in the South, is not facing an imminent danger of war with any of the neighboring Arab states. So war with its neighbors, and in particular Syria, is not the alternative to a peace agreement. Rather, the current choice is between continuing the 60 years of belligerency with Syria or striking a peace agreement. This also seems to be a rather easy choice at first sight, until we come to the price Israel would have to pay for the agreement.

Should we go for peace at any price? Some people might well believe that no price is too high for peace. Will it not guarantee against future wars? Is that not worth any price? So if Bashar Assad wants the Golan in exchange for peace, why not give it to him? And if he wants a few hundred meters beyond what used to be the international border before the Syrian army invaded Israel in May 1948, why not give it to him? Is that narrow strip of territory worth forgoing peace with Assad? And what if he were to insist on obtaining a small strip of the Galilee as well?

Is that where peace at any price stops? Should it rather be peace at any reasonable price? And at what point does the price cease to be reasonable? There is no quantitative answer.

When faced with such an insoluble equation, it is sometimes convenient to try to find a solution by addressing the problem from another angle. That is what happened when Ariel Sharon proposed the disengagement from Gush Katif, which involved uprooting 8,000 Israeli citizens from their homes and turning the area over to the Palestinians. We want a Jewish democratic state. That is why we are here, and this objective is worth any price. As it turned out, this move did not achieve – or even advance – peace, and Israel is no more Jewish and democratic now than it was before these Israeli citizens were forced out of their homes. It was no more than a delusion, dispelled in short order, that was cleverly sold to the Israeli public.

Some of the advocates of peace with Syria at any price may regret that the argument of “a Jewish democratic state” does not apply to turning the Golan Heights over to Syria. There is no “demographic problem” there. Instead, this has been called a “just” solution to the problem. After all, the Golan Heights was sovereign Syrian territory before Syria attacked Israel in the Six-Day War. Does that not mean that it is only proper to return to the Syrians this territory they lost during the war, even if it means uprooting 30,000 Israelis who now live there?

But that is not the accepted rule of nations that come to peace agreements. The aggressor nation is not entitled to all territory lost in a war. That would mean that there is no price for attacking a neighbor: Even if the aggression fails, nothing is lost. Just try applying this ludicrous principle to the territories Germany lost in World War II. Syria attacked Israel three times – in 1948, in 1967 and in 1973. The last two times, Syria was soundly defeated. Is it at all reasonable that Syria’s lost territory should now be restored? That this cruel dictatorial regime, which is attempting to attain nuclear weapons, should be appeased by receiving the Golan Heights?

According to newspaper reports, Prime Minister Olmert already has informed Bashar Assad that Israel is prepared to cede the Golan Heights to Syria. That hasty move needs some further thought, unless all of Olmert’s thoughts at this time are devoted to saving his coalition.

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