Skip To Content
Back to Opinion

Israel, Syria and Bush’s Veto

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.

I hope you appreciated this article. Before you go, I’d like to ask you to please support the Forward’s award-winning, nonprofit journalism during this critical time.

Now more than ever, American Jews need independent news they can trust, with reporting driven by truth, not ideology. We serve you, not any ideological agenda.

At a time when other newsrooms are closing or cutting back, the Forward has removed its paywall and invested additional resources to report on the ground from Israel and around the U.S. on the impact of the war, rising antisemitism and the protests on college campuses.

Readers like you make it all possible. Support our work by becoming a Forward Member and connect with our journalism and your community.

Make a gift of any size and become a Forward member today. You’ll support our mission to tell the American Jewish story fully and fairly. 

— Rachel Fishman Feddersen, Publisher and CEO

Join our mission to tell the Jewish story fully and fairly.

Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.