As Laura Rozen points out , George W. Bush wasn’t just attacking Barack Obama in his Knesset speech dismissing negotiations with “terrorists and radicals” as appeasement. He was also attacking his host, Ehud Olmert, whose government was already engaged in indirect peace contacts with Syria via Turkey – the negotiations made public yesterday.
The contacts through Turkey reportedly began in February 2007. If so, the Olmert government may have been persuaded to act (or embarrassed into acting) by the reports published the previous month about Foreign Minister director-general Alon Liel’s back-channel negotations with Syria. The “non-paper ” – or unsigned framework agreement reached by Liel and unofficial Syrian negotiator Ibrahim (Abe) Suleiman is important reading, because it gives a sense of how an Israel-Syria deal is likely to look. One creative feature: in order to keep the Golan demilitarized and to prevent competition over Jordan River water, the Golan would be turned into a giant park after Israeli withdrawal – with free access for Israelis.
Liel has stressed – in a press briefing in January 2007, and since – that a critical part of any deal is a switch in Syrian orientation from pro-Iran to pro-West. That would necessarily mean dropping support for Hamas and Hezbollah. Syria’s secular regime wants the reorientation in order to maintain its independence, Alon reports. For Israel, such a deal would mean much more than removing the direct military threat from Syria. With Hamas and Hezbollah weakened, Iran’s power in our area would be sigificantly reduced.
But the deal requires a third party: Washington. Syria won’t and can’t risk dropping Iran without a new patron; otherwise it will be totally isolated in the region. And Bush’s Washington isn’t interested. Since the Liel-Suleiman talks were publicized, experts here have said that the main obstacle is the U.S.
In a fairly devastating report on the adminstration’s nonexistent role in Mideast peace efforts, the Washington Post says today :
For years, the Bush administration has resisted overtures from Jerusalem and Damascus to participate in revived peace efforts over the Golan Heights…
At his Senate confirmation hearing on May 1, James B. Cunningham, the ambassador-designate to Israel, said expanding peace talks to include Syria would be difficult. “We have taken the position that it is not very useful right now for us to be talking to Syria,” he said. As a result, over the past year Turkey has taken the initiative to launch shuttle diplomacy, a role once reserved for U.S. secretaries of state.
The administration, it seems, has now dropped its absolute veto. But it isn’t happy. Rozen reports :
The Bush administration, which knew the talks were taking place, even as the president was making his controversial remarks, offered reluctant support. “It is our hope that discussions between Israel and Syria will cover all the relevant issues,” a State Department official, speaking on background, told Mother Jones.
The operative word there is “reluctant.”
One administration objection to talking peace with Syria is that it would undercut the pro-Western government in Lebanon, and thereby hurt Washington’s efforts to promote democracy in the region. As I wrote recently in The American Prospect, the Bush policy has actually hurt the Siniora government by strengthening Hezbollah. Hezbollah knows that Syria could leave it high and dry; Washington doesn’t.
It’s true that the Siniora government has lobbied against an Israeli-Syrian deal. Instead, it wants the U.S. to protect it from Hezbollah. This is a clue to what Bush doesn’t get about our neighbor to the north. Lebanon provides a preview for those who’d like to turn Israel and the territories into a binational state. Instead of the state looking for foreign patrons against outside enemies, each community within it – or each faction within each community – looks for a foreign patron, usually hoping that the outside power will do its fighting for it. Syria is always a player, but it regularly switches clients. Back in 1982, Israel was seduced by Bashir Gemayel into thinking it could control Lebanon by backing his Christian faction. The results were disastrous. Siniora would like the US to make the same mistake, but Bush has no troops available. Perhaps he even understands why it would be a bad idea.
The only way to weaken Hezbollah in Lebanon, therefore, is to get Syria to cut it loose. But Bush is ready, at most, to stand aside and let Israel and Syria negotiate. The Bush doctrine, essentially, is “no negotiations, no recognition, no peace .” So the chances of cutting a deal before next January are poor. What happens after that depends – not exclusively, but significantly – on who’s in the White House. Obama believes in negotiating . The McCain Doctrine is the Bush Doctrine, shop-worn, failed and relabelled.