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Dreaming of Surge, Acting in Serge

Good news from Iraq has been a rarity for so long that the very idea seems almost oxymoronic. This week, however, brought some of the best news in a very long time: The Bush administration has finally agreed to talk to the other players in the worsening conflict, including Iran and Syria.

Over the next two months, Washington has agreed to participate in at least two high-level parleys on stabilizing the chaos we have created in Iraq, sitting alongside other parties that have a stake in the conflict and a potential role in restoring order. Participants will include representatives of Iran and Syria, rogue states that have been off limits until now, along with such international mischief-makers as Egypt, Jordan, France and the United Nations.

This was not, it must be noted, the Bush White House’s dream scenario. Past attempts by Egypt and others to bring our leaders together with Iran and Syria have ended in failure. This is an administration that prefers not to resolve conflicts but to win them. Its ideal vision of confronting hostile regimes tends not toward reasoning with them but replacing them.

Our leaders do not look to meetings of diplomats in pin stripes and blue serge as the way to fix major international crises. They do not dream of serge, but of surge.

The change of heart seems to flow from an overdue recognition of our nation’s change of fortune. We went to war in the Middle East five and a half years ago because of an attack on our soil by Osama bin Laden’s shadowy terrorist band. In short order we succeeded in driving bin Laden from his camps in Afghanistan and overturning hostile regimes, first in Afghanistan, then in Iraq. Five years later, bin Laden is still at large and reportedly planning his next attack, Iraq is in chaos and the deposed Taliban forces of Afghanistan are resurgent, perhaps stronger than ever.

Regime change? Putting the bad guys on the run? This week our own vice president narrowly escaped assassination while camping out — in secret — at one of our most secure military bases in the region. Just a day earlier, the vice president of the regime we installed in Iraq, Adel Abdul-Mahdi, had an even narrower escape; he was injured by a bomb while addressing civil servants at a supposedly secure government ministry. Two near misses in as many days is as good a reason as any to rethink strategy. There’s nothing like a brush with death to instill a little humility.

Now that Washington is preparing to sit down with the Syrians, it’s getting awfully hard to understand what is preventing Israel from doing the same. Much of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s Cabinet has been urging for months that he take up offers from Damascus to sit down and cut a deal. Olmert has turned them all down flat, giving a succession of reasons — the Syrians’ sponsorship of terrorism, their support for Hezbollah, their inflammatory rhetoric, their alliance with Iran — that ought to be subjects of negotiations, not reasons for avoiding them.

Press reports, some of them highly authoritative, indicate that Olmert’s real reason for refusing to talk is something else: The Bush administration forbids it. As Olmert himself told his Cabinet a few weeks ago, President Bush is deeply invested in isolating Syria, and Israel cannot let itself undermine its best friend.

As Syria’s ambassador to Washington, Imad Moustapha, tells our Marc Perelman on Page 7, Jerusalem’s refusal to talk raises suspicions on the Arab side that Israel simply isn’t interested in peace. We don’t think that’s true. The sides have come agonizingly close to a deal several times in the past decade. Israel has repeatedly shown courage in peacemaking when the opportunity presented itself. Olmert himself was elected on a platform of compromise with neighbors.

America does Israel no favors when it forbids negotiations with longtime enemies. Israel does itself a disservice when it takes such orders lying down. Now that America has agreed to sit with Syria, it’s time for Israel to seize the moment and give Syrian intentions a test.

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