Calls for Talks With Syria Increase in U.S., Israel

Olmert Says Not Now, Bush Also Seen as Being Opposed

By Nathaniel Popper

Published August 25, 2006, issue of August 25, 2006.

In the wake of the Lebanon war, influential policy makers in Washington and Jerusalem have begun pushing for a major diplomatic opening to Syria.

Four members of the Israeli Cabinet, including Defense Minister Amir Peretz and Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter, have called publicly in recent days for negotiations with Syria, which is seen by Israel and the United States as having facilitated Hezbollah’s military activities. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni appointed a person to explore the potential ways to engage Syria, though Livni said this should not be read as a change in Israel’s position. Proponents of talks with Syria argue that engaging Damascus and convincing it to drop its support for anti-Israeli terrorist groups is the only way to end the conflict with Hezbollah. They also say that diplomacy is needed to get Syria to abandon its alliance with Iran, a partnership that many Israeli leaders see as a graver threat than talks with Damascus.

Peretz, who heads the Labor Party, backed away from his support for a Syrian track after Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, leader of the ruling Kadima party, slapped down the idea Monday night. But even in his rejection of the idea, Olmert kept the possibility open, albeit only slightly.

“I will negotiate only when Syria undergoes fundamental change with regard to its open support for terrorism,” Olmert said. Previous reports had quoted Olmert as saying that Israel would only consider talks with Syria if the United States removed the country from its list of state sponsors of terrorism.

There has been some speculation in recent weeks that Israel would be prepared to open a channel with Syria but does not want to upset the Bush administration. Ha’aretz reported that the Bush administration is prepared to reevaluate its refusal to engage in high-level contacts with Damascus, but only after November’s congressional elections. In recent days, however, a counter view has emerged that portrays Olmert, Bush and some of their underlings as resistant to talks with Syria, with other officials in both Jerusalem and Washington pressing for negotiations.

In his strongly worded speech Monday night, Olmert said, “let’s not get sucked in by false hopes, or create illusions that tomorrow we’ll blink our eyes and all of the sudden they will be negotiating partners.”

The strongest Israeli government statement in favor of negotiations came from Dichter, a member of Olmert’s party and former head of the Shin Bet internal security service, who raised the possibility of returning the Golan Heights to Syria.

Some Israel observers are describing the debate over Syria as an effort by government officials to divert attention from the military failures in Lebanon, but the calls by Dichter and others have been strengthened by similar talk in America. Two prominent former American diplomats with strong relations with the Jewish community, Dennis Ross and Richard Holbrooke, recently published opinion articles in The Washington Post calling for the Bush administration to step up diplomatic efforts to engage the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. In addition to Holbrooke and Ross, the recent conflict has brought out an influential camp of realists in the foreign policy establishment, who have pushed for an American role in Syrian negotiations.

“The crisis in Lebanon has pushed more people into the column of those who advocate for engagement with Syria,” said Scott Lasensky, a senior fellow at the United States Institute of Peace, a federally funded think tank.

The White House has, until now, opposed talks with Syria, which is labeled a state sponsor of terrorism by the State Department. The war in Lebanon has only emboldened the anti-Syrian voices in Congress and neoconservative circles, including commentators who have argued that now is, in fact, the time to attack Syria. Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich published a rebuttal to Holbrooke’s piece, dismissing his proposals as “appeasement.”

When John Bolton, the American ambassador to the United Nations and a leading administration neoconservative, was asked Monday if there is any possibility of negotiations with Syria or Iran, he answered with a simple: “No.”

Assad took power after his father’s death, about the same time that the Israeli-Syrian negotiations fell apart in 2000. Since then, he has taken an increasingly adversarial stance toward Israel and the United States. The Bush administration ended any high-level contact with Assad’s regime after the 2003 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, a killing that was widely blamed on Syria.

This week Assad showed no conciliatory signs toward Israel or the United States, and he went so far as to label as “half men” Arabs who did not support Hezbollah’s fight against the Jewish state.

On August 15, in his first major speech after the ceasefire, Assad leveled several threats, while also signaling a willingness to negotiate. “They should know that they are at a historic juncture,” Assad said of Israel in his speech in Damascus. “They should either go toward peace and returning rights [to the Arabs], or towards constant instability…. Israel must realize that time is not on its side.”

One of Assad’s biographers, David Lesch, told the Forward that he spoke with the Syrian president in Damascus during the fighting in Lebanon and that he was very interested in renewing negotiations with both the United States and Israel. But, Lesch added, Assad is also riding a new sense of empowerment because of Syria’s perceived role in aiding Hezbollah.

“He certainly saw in the crisis some strategic advantage that would result in Syria being brought back to the table,” said Lesch, author of “The New Lion of Damascus: Bashar al-Assad and Modern Syria.”

“Bashar sees Hezbollah as leverage he can use in negotiating with Israel over the Golan Heights,” Lesch added.

In Israel, Syria’s enhanced position is cited both as a reason for engaging the Baathist regime and a reason for staying away. Danny Yatom, a former Mossad director who has been among those in the Labor Party calling for an opening of negotiations, said the fighting in Lebanon made it clear that “as much as Iran is the mastermind of Hezbollah, Syria is an essential accomplice.”

Yatom told the Forward that it was because of Syria’s influence that Damascus needs to be engaged.

“The moment there are negotiations with Syria, then everything changes in the Middle East, and we can begin renewing ties with other Arab states,” Yatom said.

The main upside to negotiations with Syria, for people like Yatom, is that it could break the alliance between Damascus and Tehran at a time when the West is seeking to pressure Iran to curb its nuclear program. Syria’s relationship with Iran, many analysts say, is primarily born out of convenience. As a secular Arab state, populated mostly by Sunni Muslims, Syria has little in common with Iran, a Shiite, Islamic theocracy.

For the Bush administration, though, the alliance with Iran is only one of the problems with Syria. Even if Syria were willing to talk with Israel about Hezbollah, that would not necessarily change Syria’s support for the Iraqi insurgency and its support for Palestinian terrorist groups, policy analysts say.

“There is so much static that it would make more sense for Israel to find its own lines into the Syrians,” said Edward Walker, who has served as the American ambassador to both Israel and Egypt.

Theodore Kattouf, a former American ambassador to Syria, said the only way the United States would ever overcome its resistance is if Israel pushed hard. “Without the Israelis urging it, it’s not going to happen,” Kattouf said.

The tone in Israel has not been about moving forward, but rather on evaluating the military failures in Lebanon, said David Makovsky, an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who has been in Israel for the past week.

“Right now Israel is traumatized and is looking inwards, not talking about diplomatic initiatives,” Makovsky said.

But Makovsky also said that given the lack of hope in negotiations with the Palestinians, the attention may return to Syria when the period of introspection is over.

“I don’t think anything is going to happen soon on Syria,” he said, “but I wouldn’t rule it out, in a way that was ruled out until very recently.”

With reporting by J.J. Goldberg from Jerusalem.

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.