I’ve hesitated in writing about this story reported yesterday in Haaretz since allowing potentially good news to go to your head is a fatal mistake regarding Middle East politics. Optimism always seems to be repaid with a harsh slap in the face. But the NY Times is also reporting the story today so I figured what the hell–if war breaks out tomorrow then we’ll all have egg on our faces.
Syria and Israel are making all the right noises about being prepared to make peace with each other. The Turkish prime minister carried a message from Ehud Olmert to Bashir Assad that the former was prepared to return all of the Golan in return for peace. A Syrian newspaper reported the story yesterday and today a Syrian minister repeated it. When Olmert’s office refused to deny (or confirm) it, it became big news.
It is ironic Olmert now feels comfortable acknowledging (tacitly) his willingness to compromise with Syria in return for peace. In this blog, I castigated him roundly last year for his tortuous attempts to deny the validity of negotiations conducted by Alon Liel with a Syrian interlocutor, in which they attempted to map out the contours of an agreement. Things now have gotten more serious and Olmert has stopped playing the fool.
There is of course one problem: the two countries are negotiating by press release or third parties instead of face to face. Politicians can say pretty much whatever they want as long as they don’t have to commit to anything. But when you sit down to negotiate in earnest, that’s when you have to get serious.
So what’s stopping them? A weakened Israeli governing coalition, for one. Olmert has a lot of things on his plate including a right-wing Opposition leader breathing down his neck and looking for weakness and opportunities to exploit them. But it is a good sign that Olmert is at least refusing to deny the reports.
And the most significant impediment to negotiations is the ideological rigidity of the Bush Administration. They would rather punish Syria and its ally Iran than do either of them any favors. To Bush-Cheney, peace between Syria and Israel seems too much like a reward that Syria doesn’t deserve. Of course, they neglect how critical peace would be for Israel, our supposed ally. The neocons would rather have a war that bled an ally than a peace that rewarded their foes. It’s called cutting off your friend’s nose to spite his face.
Syria wisely is insisting the the U.S. play a role in expediting whatever talks happen. If the former is to give up it protective alliance with Iran, it expects that it will gain something from the U.S. in return. Unfortunately, I seriously doubt the Bush Administration is willing or able to play such a role. This could doom a peace agreement to being stillborn; at least until a new president takes office. Let’s hope Syria and Israel haven’t gone to war before then…
Finally, there are indications from Hamas that it may be close to accepting Egyptian proposals negotiated with Israel for a temporary Gaza ceasefire. This does not, however, appear to be the longer-term ceasefire many people have long awaited that might lead also to freeing Gilad Shalit and 400 Palestinian prisoners.
I have two new Comment is Free essays published over the past two days. The first, Carter’s Principled Mission, on Jimmy Carter’s mission to Hamas and the second, Massive Attack, on Hillary’s threat to “obliterate” Iran if it attacks Israel.