U.S. Drops Opposition to Israel-Syria Talks

By Nathan Guttman

Published May 01, 2008, issue of May 09, 2008.
  • Print
  • Share Share

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.

HANDS OFF: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice received a standing ovation at an April 29 address to the American Jewish Committee, where she slammed Syria as a destabilizing force in the Middle East. But despite her strong words, the Bush administration appears to have shifted away from active opposition to Israeli-Syrian peace talks.
HANDS OFF: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice received a standing ovation at an April 29 address to the American Jewish Committee, where she slammed Syria as a destabilizing force in the Middle East. But despite her strong words, the Bush administration appears to have shifted away from active opposition to Israeli-Syrian peace talks.

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.”






Find us on Facebook!
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.