Just a week after President Bush, speaking at Israel’s Knesset, likened those who would advocate engagement with “terrorists and radicals” to Nazi appeasers, the governments of Israel and Syria—a close ally of Iran—have announced that official peace talks are underway between their nations, mediated by Turkey. “It is better in this situation to speak rather than to shoot,” declared Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert in a statement Wednesday. “This is what the sides agreed.”
Noted the Syrian foreign ministry in a similar statement: “Both sides have expressed their desire to conduct the talks in good will and decided to continue dialogue with seriousness to achieve comprehensive peace.”
The Bush administration, which was informed of the planned talks by Israel and Turkey, 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. He outlined Washington’s outstanding concerns with Syria, including its “support for terrorist groups, facilitation of the passage of foreign fighters into Iraq, and intervention in Lebanon, as well as repression inside Syria. An agreement dealing with these issues would be a true contribution to peace.”
While Bush-era Washington has been consumed with ideological debates over whether talking to hostile regimes and militant groups rewards or legitimizes them, a parade of veteran senior Israeli security and diplomatic officials has pushed the case, both in Israel and Washington, that engaging adversaries such as Syria and Hamas could advance their nation’s security interests. “The alliance between Syria and Iran is mainly one of convenience,” Israel’s former foreign ministry director general and Mossad official David Kimche told me in January in a suburban Tel Aviv cafe. “There is no deep connection. And it’s worth our while, if we could weaken that link.”
What’s more, Kimche added, Syria very much wants Washington at the table. “Syria doesn’t want to talk without the Americans,” he said. “But from the American side, on Iraq, there has to be improvement. And the anger of the Americans at the moment is that they see Syria being behind the ongoing crisis in Lebanon.”
Alon Liel, former director general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, has participated on the Israeli side of back channel Israel-Syria talks in recent years. “One of the reasons that I believe we should explore the possibility of speaking with Syria on an official level is that this body needs oxygen,” he told me in February during a visit to Washington. “And we can keep the [peace] process alive through the Syrians because we can bluff with the Palestinians for another two months, but not more. We need a real process, and the Syrians are open to do it.
“The problem we are having now is that the circumstances have changed and the Syrians are a regional player,” he added. “They are seen as an Iranian proxy, and Israel cannot sign a bilateral agreement with Syria as long as Syria is positioned as it is at moment in the region.”
Such a situation, Liel suggested, would require two sets of talks. “On one desk we have the Syrians and the Israelis discussing the [bilateral] issues of border, normalization, water, demilitarization,” he explained. “At another table, we’d have the Syrians, Israelis, Americans, and maybe the Europeans, in order to discuss how Syria is forming a military alliance with Iran, the need to kick out [Hamas political leader Khaled] Meshal from Damascus, and to stop smuggling arms to Hezbollah, and what they’d get in return.” (Olmert has reportedly offered to give the Golan Heights back to Syria if it meets Israeli conditions.)
Washington and Jerusalem also part ways over Syria’s role in Lebanon. The Bush administration sees Lebanon’s March 2005 Cedar Revolution –which led to withdrawal of Syrian troops a month later, and subsequent democratic elections — as a crowning achievement in its efforts to spread democracy in the Middle East. Some Israeli officials take a more jaundiced view. “We were very active in Lebanon, and we learned a lot of things,” Kimche told me. “The Syrians do not see Lebanon as independent. They see it as part of Syria. There is no Syrian embassy in Lebanon, and there never was a Syrian embassy in Lebanon.”
Washington is not backing away from its demand that Damascus recognize Lebanese independence, the State Department official insisted Wednesday: “Syria should carry out UN Security Council resolutions relating to Lebanon by recognizing its sovereignty and independence and delineation of their common border.”
It’s unclear what brought about the change in Washington’s position toward Israel-Syria talks, from passive rejection to tacit endorsement — or, as the case may be, if Israel simply decided to move on the talks in spite of Washington’s lingering objections. “I think that the administration is of two minds on this,” says David Schenker, a former Pentagon policy advisor on Syria and Lebanon. “On the one hand, the administration supports Israeli efforts to forge peace treaties with its neighbors. This is something that is an objective good.”
“On the other hand,” he notes, “the administration recognizes that negotiations with Syria now have a really pernicious effect on our embattled allies in Lebanon. “First, Syrians get to rub salt in the wounds of their enemies in Beirut. Secondly, and most importantly for Damascus, any negotiations with Israel undermine international consensus for isolating Syria and undermine potentially international support for the international tribunal” investigating the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, which set the Cedar Revolution in motion.
The White House is in a precarious position, Schenker says. “It doesn’t want to stand in the way of progress. But everything the Syrians are saying would suggest no deal.” Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, he adds, is saying that a strategic realignment away from Iran is out of the question.
For his part, Israel’s Olmert said he had no illusions about the prospects for success. “The negotiations will not be easy,” he said. “It is possible that they will take a long time and involve difficult concessions.”
While driven by its own complex interests, such an attitude stands in contrast with the Bush administration’s ideological reluctance to meet with its foes (although it has done so with North Korea, Libya, and militant groups in Iraq). But some Israeli security and diplomatic officials express increasing impatience with Washington’s policy of non-engagement. “We need you to do diplomacy, because the military option does not work,” former Israeli Foreign Minister director general Shlomo Ben-Ami said at a Washington dinner in March. “It’s the first time in history that my ally does not speak with our enemies. We need you to engage these parties.”