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May 21, 2008

Engaging Syria?
Posted by Moran Banai

The Israelis and Syrians announced today that they have been carrying on secret indirect negotiations through Turkey. Intriguingly, according to Al-Hayat (cited in Haaretz), the United States had asked Turkey to increase its efforts on these negotiations and “hinted to Israel more than once the importance of progress in talks with Syria.” The New York Times says that the talks and the announcement were coordinated with the United States.

In December of 2006, shortly after the release of the Iraq Study Group Report, which highlighted the importance of a U.S. diplomatic offensive in the Middle East to complement its other recommendations on Iraq, Prime Minister Olmert essentially told his cabinet that he would not negotiate with Syria because Bush didn’t want him to, saying:

“At a time when the president of the United States, Israel’s most important ally, with whom we have a network of strategic relations — when he is fighting in every arena, both at home in America, in Iraq and in other places in the world, against all the elements that want to weaken him — is this the time for us to say the opposite?”

At a press conference during Olmert’s visit to the United States in June 2007, he and Bush were asked about Israel negotiating with Syria and the prime minister said that "The U.S.  never said not to hold talks with Syria … and we've never asked for their permission. Israel will not ask permission to conduct peace talks if it feels it's right, nor defend itself if it feels it's necessary." And Bush, for his part, said: “If the prime minister wants to negotiate with Syria, he doesn't need me to mediate. It's up to the prime minister. This man is plenty capable of having negotiations without me mediating.”

U.S. objections still appeared to be a major stumbling block, as did the Syrian interest in having a U.S. presence at the table.

Then, in April of this year information came out about the Turkish-brokered talks and in early May, Secretary Rice said that the United States would not stand in the way of Israeli-Syrian negotiations, but expected Syria to change its policy toward Lebanon.

Dana Perino's reaction today was that the U.S. was apprised of the talks, that the president recognizes the importance of a comprehensive peace for Israel and that along with this being used to further isolate Iran, "we hope is that this is a forum to address various concerns that we all share about Syria -- the United States, Israelis and many others -- in regards to Syria's support for Hamas and Hezbollah, the training and funding of terrorists that belong to those two organizations."

There are obviously many other factors at play in this evolution, including the effects of the 2006 Israel-Hizbullah war on the balance of power in the region, the equally important effects of the Israeli strike in September of 2007, and, of course, the deadlock in Lebanon, which seems to have come to an end at the talks in Qatar that followed Hizbullah’s power play last week, and there are many reasons to be skeptical. But this evolving policy appears to be another example of the pragmatic realization that non-engagement with countries like Iran and Syria will not advance U.S. interests or those of its allies.

There is still a long way to go for the two parties to reach an agreement and much speculation in Israel that today’s announcement is primarily a diversionary tactic by Olmert to distract from the most recent corruption investigation against him, but the announcement is still welcome news. The United States should build on this momentum while ensuring that this track complements any negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians instead of becoming an alternative to them.


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Was Bush calling the Israelis who were talking to Syria "appeasers"?

The Israeli left doesn't agree with Bush, and he is way more vindictive than people give him credit for.

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