Yesterday, I wrote about my puzzlement over Ehud Olmert’s differentiation between negotiating with Lebanon on the one hand and the Palestinians and Syrians on the other. Lebanon is kosher, Palestine and especially Syria are treif. I wondered why. After I wrote this post I read Shmuel Rosner’s Haaretz diary and he laid out a very plausible explanation: Dick Cheney wants it that way.
You see, this Administration continues to place ideological blinkers on its Mideast policy. Dick still chafes that Syria didn’t make it into the Axis of Evil. Syria is allied with Iran. The latter is Mideast devil number 1; the former devil number 2. It doesn’t matter to the Cheneyites that Bashir Assad is practically suing for peace with Israel. He’s published interviews with scores of prominent world media outlets announcing his willingness to end hostilities with Israel. Israelis writing in publications like Haaretz and Yediot Achronot have wondered why Israel is missing yet another opportunity to miss an opportunity. Well, Rosner explains it all to you:
A few short weeks ago, Public Security Minister Avi Dichter told Army Radio, with regard to talks with Syria, that “if it turned out that there was someone to talk to and something to talk about, the idea would be right.” On Tuesday, however, after his meeting with U.S. National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley, Dichter sounded somewhat different. He was for talks “in principle,” but at the same time presented three conditions amazingly similar to the unbending American ones: the need for the closing down of the terror organizations in Damascus, for cessation of support for Hezbollah and of intervention in Lebanon, and prevention of the entry of terrorists into Iraq from Syria. On the third point, Dichter revealed another element: as long as the U.S. saw a problem with the Syrian channel, “Israel could not ignore it.”
The U.S. does indeed see a problem, even a few problems, when it comes to the possibility of talks between Israel and Syria. In the continued approaches by President Bashar Assad, they see a clumsy attempt to escape the siege they have instituted, and perhaps also to escape the possible implications of the Rafik Hariri murder investigation. The U.S. is thus not interested in seeing Israel and Syria move ahead with a separate channel.
Does Olmert not understand that U.S. interests might diverge from Israel’s at times? That the U.S. may not want peace between Israel and Syria because it will not further their ideological war plans against nations that represent “Muslim extremism.” The U.S. Administration seems geared for perpetual war against the Muslim Mideast. Should Israel follow suit? There are certainly elements within the Likud that think precisely that way. Notably Netanyahu. But he is currently a distinct minority. Why should Israel be led by the nose on an issue (relations with Syria) so vital to Israel’s long-term security??
Here is a further example of Bush Administration cynicism at Israel’s expense:
most American officials dealing with the Syrian channel say they don’t believe the Syrians are sincere. Syria’s rulers say one thing to the European media and another to the Syrian press, the assistant secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, David Welch, warned a few weeks ago. Welch called the Syrian position on negotiations “confusing.”
Does anyone reading this trust a State Department flack like Welch to penetrate the mindset of Bashir Assad? Who cares whether he’s saying one thing to one audience and something else to another. You can easily test someone’s sincerity by sitting down and talking to them and asking them to prove it to you. If you don’t talk, you’re living on air with no firm basis for any judgments about your interlocutor’s goals, aims or sincerity. That’s where we are now. But not where we should or could be if someone took Assad seriously.
Rosner makes clear that the Bushites and other pro-Israel analysts understand the importance of Syria-Israel talks–sort of:
Both the Israelis and the Americans understand the problematic nature of refusing to negotiate. Dennis Ross, former chief Middle East negotiator, said yesterday that the Syrians’ true intentions must be understood. Indyk says Israel must examine the seriousness of the intentions of any Arab leader who says he wants peace. On the other hand, as one Israeli official put it, “the days are over in which every meeting with an Arab leader in a closed room is a reason for excitement.” The administration also believes that the meeting is not the important thing, since the basis for agreement has existed for a decade.
Have you ever read such doublespeak? Because we don’t deem it in our interest to meet with Syria “the meeting is not the important thing.” But once we do decide to meet it will be the most important thing. What a way to run a foreign policy! And they’re damn straight that “the basis for agreement has existed for a decade.” Israeli withdrawal from Golan and Shebaa Farms, Syrian recognition of Israel. So if the basis for agreement is understood on all sides, what’s holding them back? Again, it’s that absolutely cynical ideological Mideast game plan. Bush wants to delay a peace agreement essentially until the Assad regime falls. Then it can be a gift he proffers to the new, “moderate” pro-U.S. regime installed in his place. Dream on, Macduff.
Rosner provides further insight into the U.S.’ faulty thinking on this subject:
So why did Israel choose not to negotiate, and why does the U.S. now oppose talks? The administration has been placing emphasis lately on “strengthening the moderates” among the Sunni Arabs against the Iran-led Shi’ite axis…Syria has chosen to link to Iran and Hezbollah, and negotiating with it will serve the wrong side.
The administration is also concerned that moving ahead with the Syrians will hold back progress on the Palestinian channel, because it will prove once again that “irresponsible behavior” like Assad’s brings about better results than “responsible” conduct like that of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Both Ross and Indyk, both of whom are more experienced than any other American in these issues, agree that moving ahead on both channels simultaneously is impossible, both politically and diplomatically.
Which is such a laugh. Of what benefit has Abbas’ “responsible conduct” been to him in terms of bringing him anything he needs to sustain political power? Negotiations with Israel? No check. Release of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails? No check. Easing of Israel’s strangulation of the Palestinian economy? No check.
While I often respect Indyk’s and especially Ross’ views on Mideast matters, on this particular issue they’ve got their head in the sands. First, I do not know that you cannot pursue both tracks at the same time. Why can’t you? Second, the stalemate with Syria would seem much easier to resolve since, as they themselves have admitted, the outlines of a final agreement are pretty much known to both sides. Not to mention that if Israel resolves its conflict with Syria, there will no longer be support either for Hamas’ hardline elements headquartered in Damascus or for Syria’s Hezbollah protege in Lebanon. I’d think that withdrawing Syria from the warring camp would make all other outstanding issues much easier to resolve. But what do I know? These guys are “more experienced than any other American in these issues” (!). They must know what’s right, right? Ugh, give me a break. Lord spare us from the invincible, omniscient Mideast punditocracy. Always persuasive, but not always right.
Finally, this statement seals the deal as far as I’m concerned regarding the U.S.’ precise role in tamping down Israeli interest in talking to Syria:
The U.S. was very clear with Israel: Now is not the time, this is not the way. …
Was American opposition the main reason Olmert decided to spurn Syria’s outstretched hand? Indyk believes that is the case, despite denials by Israeli officials.
Has America’s Mideast policy been so stellar since 2001 that Olmert is willing to throw all his eggs into our basket regarding Syria? If so, he’s making yet another massive mistake (add it to all the others he’s made since he was elected).