Washington - Following a softening of the Bush administration’s opposition to Israeli-Syrian contacts, the Israeli government is actively exploring the possibility of reopening negotiations with Syria, according to Israeli sources and a senior Republican lawmaker who visited Damascus last week.
The Republican lawmaker, Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, spoke after meeting last Sunday, December 30, with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and conveying a message from Israel’s prime minister, Ehud Olmert.
Specter, accompanied by Democratic Rep. Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island, told Assad that Israel is still waiting for a response to its request that Syria take public actions to prove its readiness for peace negotiations. For Specter, this message was seen as giving a green light to negotiations. “The time is right now, and prospects are very good,” the senator told reporters in Damascus after meeting Assad. “The parties will continue talks through intermediaries, and it’s my hope and expectation at some point, if preliminary progress has been made, the U.S. government would be ready, too.”
Israel’s sudden willingness to engage in talks with Syria represents a change in policy in both Washington and Jerusalem. During the past year, Washington has repeatedly signaled to Israel that talks with Syria should be avoided because they would be seen as rewarding the Damascus regime. By contrast, the new policy sees the opening of a negotiating channel as an opportunity to break Syria’s link with Iran and to weaken Tehran’s foothold in the region. David Makovsky, a senior fellow with The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that this approach represents a split within the Bush administration on the issue of Syria. “On the one hand, Secretary Rice believes that it is important to keep the Syrians in the tent and to distance them from the Iranian orbit,” Makovsky said, “but on the other hand, [Vice President] Cheney and others are very suspicious because of Syria’s activity in Lebanon.”
Three days before meeting Assad, Specter met in Jerusalem with the Israeli prime minister and asked if he had any message to relay to Assad. Olmert, according to a source in Jerusalem, told the senator to pass on the message that “Israel is still waiting for an answer” to previous messages and that “the ball is in their court now.” Olmert was referring, according to the Israeli source, to the demand that Assad make clear that a peace accord with Israel will bring an end to Syria’s support for terror groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah, and that actions be taken in this direction even before peace talks begin.
When Specter asked how the Syrians would know that Olmert is serious about resuming peace talks, Olmert answered, according to a source briefed on the conversation, that his sincerity had been demonstrated by the fact that he did not oppose Syria’s participation in the Annapolis, Md., peace conference last November.
Coming out of their December 30 meeting with Assad, Specter and Kennedy sounded upbeat about the prospects of pushing Israeli-Syrian contacts forward. Specter told reporters that Israel would clearly have to return the Golan Heights to Syria in any agreement, and that a peace accord would also have to address Israeli concerns about Syria’s support of terror groups. “There are questions about security and about confidence-building. There are problems with Hamas and Hezbollah, and there’s a perception that Syria could be helpful in those matters,” Specter said.
Specter, a five-term veteran and one of only three Jewish Republicans on Capitol Hill, has made promoting negotiations with Syria a personal quest. This week’s visit marked the 16th time Specter has landed in Damascus, in a series of visits that began when Assad’s father, the late president Hafez al-Assad, was still in power. Specter is also a strong advocate of increasing the American role in brokering a peace accord between Israel and Syria and in establishing open communication channels between Washington and Damascus. On their recent visit, Specter and Kennedy managed to secure a promise to release seven dissidents jailed by the regime because of their opposition activities.
The first sign of change in American policy toward Syria came with the invitation to participate in the Annapolis peace conference. This act, according to analysts, signaled the separation between two strands of thought in Washington: the frustration over Syria’s meddling in the internal politics of neighboring Lebanon on one hand, and on the other hand, the hope that Syria can play a positive role in the Middle East peace process. Imad Mustapha, Syria’s ambassador to Washington, said last month in a round-table discussion at Georgetown University that Damascus was initially opposed to taking part in the peace parley and that he agreed to come only after being pressured by Palestinians, the Arab League and the United States. At the same time, Mustapha expressed skepticism regarding the outcome of the Annapolis conference, saying he did not believe that it would achieve any progress.
Syria has faced increased international pressure in recent weeks because of its apparent role in derailing Lebanese presidential elections. French President Nicolas Sarkozy announced December 30 that he is severing all ties with Syria until France receives “proof of Syrian intention to let Lebanon designate a president of consensus.” And in the United States, President Bush said last month that his “patience ran out on President Assad a long time ago.”
For Israel, the Lebanese issue is seen as marginal. Jerusalem is pinning its hopes on having Syria join the peace process and subsequently distance itself from Iranian influence.
In a memo outlining its policy goals for the coming year, Israel’s Foreign Ministry cited the Syrian issue as one of its main objectives. The memo, sent out last week by ministry director-general Aharon Abramovitch, states that Israel’s goal is to develop “a strategy to detach Syria from the radical axis.” An Israeli source told the Forward that the main tool for achieving this goal is engaging in peace talks with Syria. Yet, in a separate report published last month, the Foreign Ministry research arm concluded that Syria is unlikely to move forward as long as the Bush administration is in office, because it sees a peace accord with Israel as a vehicle for improving relations with Washington.
This point was made clear at the outset of the Specter-Kennedy visit to Damascus. Following the lawmakers’ conversations with Assad, the state-run Al-Thawra newspaper ran an editorial calling on Washington to increase its involvement in the Israeli-Syrian peace process. America, the newspaper said, “should be the most daring party to relaunch overt negotiations without hesitation.”