Israel, Syria and Bush’s Veto

Published December 22, 2006, issue of December 22, 2006.
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Israel’s worst-kept diplomatic secret became public knowledge this week when its prime minister, Ehud Olmert, told his Cabinet that he was against taking up a dramatic new Syrian offer for peace talks — because doing so would undermine President Bush.

Well, at least the cat is out of the bag. Olmert has been under intense domestic pressure for months to take up Syria’s repeated offers to negotiate peace. His reply has been a repeated “Nyet.” Syria, he’s said over and over, can’t be trusted as long as it’s allied to Iran and supports terrorists. So he’s said. But that’s not really what he meant.

Proponents of talks, including some of Olmert’s top Cabinet ministers, note that Israel faces a dangerous deadlock on nearly every front, with growing Palestinian extremism, an unbowed Hezbollah to the north and the terrifying Iranian threat to the east. If Syria can be induced, for an acceptable price, to switch sides and help reduce the tensions — as President Bashar al-Assad has repeatedly hinted — then the possibility should be explored. Israel needs fewer enemies, not more of them.

Olmert’s position is that Israel can’t talk to Syria until it stops playing host to Palestinian rejectionist groups and providing support to Hezbollah. Critics argue that those are precisely the behaviors Israel should be negotiating to have halted. “Israel is demanding, as a precondition, that Syria give all that it has to give — even before sitting down at the negotiating table,” celebrated Israeli writer Amos Oz wrote this week. “That is a ludicrous demand.”

It’s long been rumored that Olmert’s real motive is placating Bush. He’s consistently denied it — until now. This time, he put his cards on the table. What drove him to ’fess up was a new peace overture from Damascus, announced December 16 by Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem. Speaking to a Lebanese newspaper, Moallem offered to open peace talks without any preconditions — dropping for the first time Syria’s longtime demand that Israel concede the Golan Heights in advance of talks. Moallem was following up on comments a day earlier by Assad, who urged Olmert to “take a chance” and “discover if we are bluffing or not.” Assad also offered to help America restore stability in Iraq.

Olmert replied, according to the Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot, by questioning Assad’s motives in reaching out just “after the Baker report was published in Washington” — calling for talks with Syria — and “after Bush made a strong statement,” rejecting it. In effect, Olmert was asking, how dare Assad offer to patch things up when that’s what James Baker and growing numbers of Americans want? Where would that leave Bush?

In case his meaning wasn’t clear, Olmert spelled it out bluntly: “At a time when the president of the United States, Israel’s most important ally, with whom we have a network of strategic relations — when he is fighting in every arena, both at home in America, in Iraq and in other places in the world, against all the elements that want to weaken him — is this the time for us to say the opposite?”

Olmert’s aides hinted afterward that he hasn’t completely ruled out talks with Syria. After all, they’re not crazy. They know that any possibility of moving toward stability on the Palestinian front depends on bringing the radicals of Hamas to heel, and that nobody but Damascus is in a position to do that. They know that Lebanon remains a tinderbox, ready to ignite whenever Syria orders it. Many of them understand what Yitzhak Rabin proclaimed a dozen years ago: that the only way to isolate Iran is to complete a “circle of peace” around Israel by making deals with Syria, followed by Lebanon and the Palestinians.

Perhaps most important, they know what every freshman Israeli strategist knows: that for all the popular chatter, Syria usually keeps the deals it makes. It made a deal with Israel in 1975 for quiet on the Golan Heights, and it’s honored its word for 31 years. Yes, it’s sought every opportunity to make Israel’s life miserable by arming Hezbollah and hosting Hamas, but those weren’t written into the 1975 deal. It’s time to cut a better deal.

Olmert knows all that, too, but the way he sees it, there’s nothing he can do about it. Israel is utterly dependent, even in the best of times, on the good graces of the American presidency. When times are good, Israel breathes easy. Right now, times are not good. The president of the United States is trapped and wounded, circling nervously like a caged tiger. Nothing is more dangerous — especially to those who are closest.

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