Syria first

by Alon Liel
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TEL AVIV - American peacemaking efforts in the Middle East are now focused on a proposed international conference of moderate forces. But what are the prospects of such a conference leading to a breakthrough, given that none of the hostile forces Israel will have to come to terms with - in particular, Syrian President Bashar Assad - are expected to be invited?

Much has been said about President George W. Bush's fondness for those who comply with American authority, and his loathing for those who defy him. One of Bush's favorite regional players is Saudi Arabia. But the Saudis are not an important player as far as the Arab-Israeli conflict is concerned.

The Saudi Initiative, which requires an Israeli withdrawal to the 1949 armistice lines in return for general Arab recognition of Israel, relies primarily on three parties to the conflict - Syria, Israel and the Palestinians. Saudi Arabia may be an important player in the Gulf area and in the global oil market, but in the Arab-Israeli conflict it is only a guest.

Assad and even Mahmoud Abbas will not let the Saudis interfere in their negotiations with Israel regarding the implementation of the withdrawal to the pre-1967 lines. Only the parties to the conflict will be directly involved in these deliberations. Saudi Arabia may be able to exercise significant influence, but only by posting an ambassador in Tel Aviv, and doing so fairly soon. And I am quite sure they will take no such step without Palestinian-Syrian approval.

US Republicans, desperate to show some progress in the Middle East, may be able to score some points with American public opinion if the Saudis attend the planned fall gathering. But the parties directly involved in the conflict will derive very little benefit from the Saudi presence.

Merely a "convention of the docile" could well do away with the last chance for creating a sustainable Palestinian state.

A diplomatic settlement that only Abbas agreed to - without Hamas's support - would be like the peace treaty Israel signed with Amin Gemayel's government in Lebanon in 1984.

If American money and arms could divide and buy off the Palestinian people, then perhaps prime minister Golda Meir's dictum, which I heard in my childhood - that "there is no Palestinian people" - would be proven true.

Inviting the "nice Palestinians" to a party in Washington, where they will be showered with plenty while trying to isolate, boycott and humiliate the "bad Palestinians," will lead - in the best of circumstances - to the creation of two Palestinian states: a pro-American one in the West Bank and a pro-Iranian regime in Gaza. In the worst of cases (if these talks fail), the conference will further entrench the diplomatic stalemate and diminish the chances for the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

It is in Israel's interest to revive the dialogue between Fatah and Hamas, just as Russia and Egypt suggest, and not to contribute to a wider rift between the Palestinian organizations, as Washington proposes.

Though the Palestinian situation has become tremendously complicated, a window of opportunity is wide open as far as the Syrians are concerned.

For the past four years Bashar Assad has been hinting that he desires negotiations with Israel. In the past year he has said so overtly, and more than once. At the outset of his eighth year in power, Assad's behavior is more confident and unequivocal. There are many signs that he wishes to negotiate with Israel about the future of the Golan Heights and peace, while also negotiating with the US about his country's future policy in the Middle East.

A nuclear-armed, fundamentalist Iran is no natural ally for Syria. The Syrians are currently interested in an Egyptian-like deal with the US, as well as with Israel. After all, the treaty with Egypt generously compensated Cairo for turning away from the USSR.

The Syrian message must have been understood in Washington, but nevertheless rejected. Bush wants to punish Assad for his support of anti-American elements in the area. This vindictiveness has prevented the White House from understanding this opportunity.

Creating a split between Syria and Iran would be of much greater strategic value than an international conference, already denigrated by Hamas as a mere photo opportunity.

As anyone living in the troubled Middle East knows, windows of opportunity are quickly shut. The Syrian opening may also soon close. This will happen the next time Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visits Damascus. The last time the Iranian president visited Syria he handed out checks; on his next visit he will come to reap his harvest. Once Damascus cashes Teheran's checks, Syria will not be strong enough to extricate itself from its alliance with the Iranians. Only an immediate American-Syrian high-level meeting can prevent the closure of the present opening.

But Bush has not authorized such a meeting. "Prime Minister Olmert does not need me in order to make peace with Syria," Bush said in his joint press conference with Olmert in June, proving yet again that he has little insight into the political processes in our area.

With the conference coming up, Israel should be aware of the contradiction between its own interests and those of the US. If Israel blindly follows Washington's policy it can expect prolonged conflicts with Hamas, Hizbullah and Syria.

Washington may be content with consolidating peace solely within the "docile coalition." That's not good enough for Israel, which needs a more inclusive gathering to enhance prospects for a positive outcome.

###

* Dr. Alon Liel was Director-General of the Israeli Foreign Office during Ehud Barak's term. He currently teaches at the Tel-Aviv University, the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at www.commongroundnews.org. Published in cooperation with the Jerusalem Post.

Source: Common Ground News Service & Jerusalem Post, 30 August 2007, www.commongroundnews.org, www.jpost.com
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