Washington - As hints of peace talks have emerged recently from Israel and Syria, the Bush administration appears to have shifted away from its long-held opposition to Jerusalem engaging in talks with the Assad regime in Damascus.
Earlier this month, both Israel and Syria took the unusual step of publicly confirming that they had been in unofficial contact. Messages were traded regarding the idea of a peace agreement in which Israel would withdraw from the Golan Heights. Turkey, which enjoys good relations with both Israel and Syria, has served as mediator of the indirect talks.
The United States has remained noticeably on the sidelines to date, and both Israeli and Syrian officials have been quoted as saying that peace talks can gain substance only after a new administration takes over in Washington next year. But while the Bush administration has not been inclined to support the talks, it nonetheless appears to have dropped its active opposition to contact between Jerusalem and Damascus.
“The U.S. policy has gone from red light to yellow light, but it is certainly not giving a green light yet,” said Scott Lasensky, acting vice president and senior research associate of the United States Institute of Peace’s Center for Conflict Analysis and Prevention. Lasensky dates the change in American policy back to this past November, when the Bush administration decided to invite a Syrian delegation to participate in the Israeli-Palestinian peace conference in Annapolis, Md. An Israeli government source said the United States has been kept informed about the talks with Syria being conducted through the Turkish channel. According to the source, Washington “was not enthusiastic” about the peace talks but did not voice any reservations about them. Nor, the source said, did the Bush administration repeat the argument it made last year that negotiating with Bashar al-Assad would undermine international efforts to pressure Syria on its involvement in Lebanon, its ties to Iran and its support for terrorism.
Washington’s cool response to the revival of the Israeli-Syrian peace track was apparent in a speech given by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on April 29 at the annual conference of the American Jewish Committee. Asked if a peace accord with Israel could drive Syria away from Iran’s grip, Rice said she did not believe that could happen. Later in her speech, she added that Syria had yet to properly stem the flow of foreign fighters across its border into Iraq, and had yet to improve its human rights record.
“If Syria and Israel wish to pursue peace, the United States is never against peace,” Rice said. “It’s just that, at this point, it’s been difficult to see Syrian behavior that has the prospect of being more stabilizing in the region, rather than the destabilizing behavior that we’re seeing.”
Skepticism in Washington about Syria’s readiness for peace was on display April 24, when the CIA disclosed for the first time information about Israel’s September 2007 attack against an alleged Syrian nuclear site. The information, presented first to members of Congress and later to the media, was intended to prove that Syria was building a nuclear reactor using North Korean technology. In an April 29 White House press conference, President Bush said that one of the purposes of the disclosure was to send a message to Syria about its “intransigence in dealing with helping us in Iraq, or destabilizing Lebanon, or dealing with Hamas.”
While observers say American involvement in peace talks between Israel and Syria may not be needed during the early stages of negotiations, both Israeli and Syrian officials have raised issues in the past that would require Washington’s involvement. For the Syrians, one of the most important outcomes of a peace accord with Israel would be normalization of relations with the Unites States and, more generally, with the West. Israel, for its part, would look to Washington for assistance on security arrangements and intelligence should an agreement be reached on handing over the Golan Heights to Syria.
Geoffrey Aronson, who was among the negotiators in informal back-channel talks last year between Israel and Syria, said both sides are now aware of the ticking of the political clock in Washington. According to Aronson, who directs the Foundation for Middle East Peace, the fact that the Bush administration is in its final months makes reaching a full agreement nearly impossible at this stage.
“Even if tomorrow Assad and Olmert come to the administration with a declaration of principles,” Aronson said, “it would be very difficult for this administration to take any real leadership on this issue before November.”