In an investigative article that appeared in the New Republic in July 1999, I provided the inside story on Binyamin Netanyahu's clandestine negotiations with – and extensive concessions to – the Syrian government in August-September 1998. The account interpreted his efforts as an effort to boost his chances at re-election and showed how Ariel Sharon, foreign minister at the time, had obstructed the agreement.
Now Sharon is prime minister and Netanyahu finance minister and the latter has a new, far more robust – and from my point of view much superior - viewpoint. He is quoted in today's Jerusalem Post saying about Syria:
Here we have this godforsaken tyranny that is among all those Arab states cringing with fear that it will be the next to go. Syria needs peace with us like a breath of fresh air. It needs it more than we do. We should take advantage of our lead and make some demands ourselves. It's about time that the old formula was erased. Israel should not have to be the only one making concessions for a peace agreement. Let them make some concessions for a change.
With this sort of attitude, something good might finally come of Syrian-Israeli diplomacy. (January 8, 2004)
Jan. 1, 2011 update: In 2004, Netanyahu was finance minister; since early 2009 he is again prime minister. According to a WikiLeaks caable reported in the Kuwaiti paper Ar-Ra'i, he may have gone back to his 1990 ways. Herb Keinon reports for the Jerusalem Post:
the US was contacted by Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem with the message that Damascus was ready to renew dialogue with the Israelis and reach a peace deal. A cable written from the US embassy in Tel Aviv on June 18, 2009 indicated that while Foreign Ministry officials believed Syria was only interested in a diplomatic process because it would give it international legitimacy, [Israeli] Defense Ministry officials viewed the Syrian-Iranian alliance as a "marriage of convenience," and believed that Syria might be serious about removing itself from Iran and withdrawing support for Hizbullah in exchange for reconciliation with the West, especially the US, and the return of the Golan Heights.
In the cable, Amos Gilad, head of the Defense Ministry's diplomatic-security bureau, was quoted as asserting that peace with Syria was "critical to achieving Israel-Palestinian peace due to Syria's ability to support spoilers." According to the sources quoted in the Kuwati paper on Saturday, The Obama administration believes peace between Israel and Syria would constitute a breakthrough that would help kick-start stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
The paper quoted senior adviser to US President Barack Obama, Dennis Ross as saying the Syrians were prepared to distance themselves from Iran, Hizbullah and Hamas and cooperate with the US in the war on terrorism.
These recent developments, according to the paper, were responsible for Obama¹s decision Wednesday to bypass the Senate and appoint Robert Ford as the first US ambassador to Damascus since 2005.