Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Middle East talks: Syria first

From Egypt:

TEL AVIV: Once again, the US peacemaking efforts in the Middle East are focused on an international convention —which is to include, this time, only the region's moderate forces. Could such a convention lead to a breakthrough, or are the Middle East's "nice guys" going to grumble yet again in President Bush's parlour? None of the hostile forces that Israel will have to come to terms with in the future, including the Syrian President Bashar Assad, were invited. Will this prove to be a wise move?

Much has been said about President Bush's great fondness for those Middle East players who fervently comply with American authority, and his intense loathing for those elements who dare defy him. Lately, one of President Bush's favorite regional players has been Saudi Arabia.

Though it is part of Washington's Middle East policy to commend and praise the Saudis for their positive involvement, Saudi Arabia is not an important player as far as the Arab-Israeli conflict is concerned. The "Saudi Initiative", mainly entailing Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders in return for general Arab recognition of Israel, primarily relies 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. Bashar Assad and even Abu-Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas) will not let the Saudis interfere in their negotiations with Israel about the implementation of the withdrawal to the 1967 borders. Only the parties to the borders conflict will be directly involved in these deliberations. Saudi Arabia may be able to exercise significant influence over the atmosphere in the area, 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.

The Republican leadership of the United States, desperate to show some positive progress in its Middle-East track record, may be able to score some points with the American public if indeed the Saudis attend the convention planned for this fall. But the parties directly involved in the conflict will derive very little benefit from the Saudi presence.

The "convention of the docile" in the fall of 2007 might do away with the last chances of creating a sustainable Palestinian state in the Middle East. A diplomatic settlement which only Abu-Mazen agrees to, without Hamas' support, would be like the peace treaty Israel signed with Amin Jumayil's government in Lebanon in 1984. If American money and arms will be able to divide the Palestinian people, then perhaps the dictum of our childhood, directly quoting Prime Minister Golda Meir, might indeed be true: "There is no Palestinian people."

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 cases, to the creation of two Palestinian states: A pro-American one in the West Bank and a pro-Iranian state in the Gaza strip. In the worst of cases (if these talks fail), the convention 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, as Russia and Egypt suggest, and not to contribute to a further and wider rift between both Palestinian organizations, as Washington proposes.

Though the Palestinian situation has become tremendously complicated, the 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 even done so overtly, and more than once. At the outset of his eighth year in power, Assad's behaviour 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 nuclearly armed, fundamentalist Iran is no natural ally for Syria. The Syrians are currently interested in an "Egyptian deal" with the US as well as with Israel. After all, the treaty with Egypt generously compensated Cairo for turning away from the USSR.

This Syrian message must have been understood in Washington; it was indeed distinctly perceived, but rejected. President Bush wished to punish Bashar 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 will be of much greater strategic value than an international conference, already defined by Hamas as a mere photo opportunity.

As anyone living in the troubled Middle East knows, windows of opportunity are quickly shut. The Syrian window may also be closed soon. This will happen the next time Iran's President Ahmedinejad visits Damascus. The last time the Iranian President visited Syria he handed out checks, and in his next visit he will come to harvest his crop. And once Damascus cashes on 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 President Bush has not authorized such a meeting. "Prime Minister Olmert does not need me in order to make peace with Syria," said President Bush in his joint press conference with Olmert, proving yet again that he has little insight of the political processes in our area.

With the international conference coming up, Israel should be aware of the contradiction between its own interests and those of the US. Should Israel blindly follow Washington's present policy, it may expect prolonged conflicts along its borders with the triple front of Hamas-Hezbollah-Syria.
Washington will be content with consolidating and strengthening peace solely within the "docile coalition", Israel, on the other hand, needs much more done to ensure an inclusive outcome.

Dr. Alon Lielwas 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

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