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Why Israel is engaging Syria

by Ramzy Baroud

On May 15, U.S. President George W. Bush gave a speech before the Israeli parliament, decrying “radicals and terrorists.” His archaic references to the “promised land” and “chosen people” certainly appealed to the equally outdated and exclusivist views of many, although not all Israeli Knesset members, who reportedly saw in Bush the quintessential Zionist.

A few days later, Bush took his message to Egypt, stating that, “We must stand with the good and decent people of Iran and Syria, who deserve so much better than the life they have today. Every peaceful nation in the region has an interest in stopping these nations from supporting terrorism.”

Yet, on May 21, media reports revealed that Israel and Syria were engaged in intermediated peace talks in Turkey. Both sides sounded upbeat, with Syrian officials stating that Israel showed readiness to withdraw from the entire Golan Heights, which it occupied in 1967 and illegally annexed in 1981.

Within days of Bush’s seemingly firm stance against “appeasement” — which ignited a political storm back in his own country — Israel seemed ready to do exactly what the U.S. president had so ardently opposed.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s decision to engage Syria has been met with much skepticism in Israel and the Arab world. There, media discussions of Olmert’s intentions fall within the following parameters: breaking the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah alliance, isolating the Palestinian opposition headquartered in Damascus and diverting attention from the heating corruption scandals dogging him at home.

As outspoken as hawks (both in Israel and the United States) might be about the “need” for another war, many know by now that a full-scale invasion of Iran would be political, if not also military, suicide. Iran has a stable and popular government with ample resources and many years of mental and physical preparations for a military showdown. It also has plenty of options for retaliation, and great influence among Iraqi militias who would, on a whim, turn their weapons on U.S. occupation forces.

The prospect of attacking Hezbollah is also now diminished. Olmert may not be a wise leader, but he is certainly not a foolish one. Considering the utter failure of his country’s conventional military approach in the July-August 2006 war in Lebanon, he is unlikely to try the same strategy again.

The attempt to destabilize Lebanon from within, in the hopes of igniting a protracted civil war, also yielded a gloomy outcome when the derided Hezbollah easily took control of Beirut.

The result of the much-anticipated muscle-flexing in Lebanon was another blow to those hoping to undermine Hezbollah and the regional alliance. The outcome of the clash was a rude awakening for the pro-U.S. local leaders in Lebanon, demonstrating that the balance of power was not in their favor. Hezbollah’s triumph led to intense talks in Doha, Qatar, between the competing parties, followed by an agreement.

On May 21, the two blocs — those of Prime Minister Fouad Saniora and Hezbollah — elected Michel Suleiman president, a choice that was advocated by Hezbollah, to resolve the crisis.

What does this mean for Lebanon as far as U.S. regional policies are concerned? Although it indicates another foreign policy failure for the Bush administration and an incomparable disappointment for Israel, it hardly signals the end of plotting against Lebanon, Hezbollah and its allies.

Another irony is that the peace agreement was achieved in Qatar, an American ally, and only a few kilometers from the U.S.’ largest army headquarters in the region.

Elsewhere in Egypt, Israel and Hamas have been talking, albeit indirectly. Although little progress has been reported, the fact remains that Israel is engaging a party that has conspired to undermine, defeat and humiliate it for years.

So, what are we to make of negotiations that have enlivened the peace-talks track with Syria (dead since 2000) and of the efforts to engage Hamas and do little to hamper the peaceful settlement of the Lebanese crisis — all amid the heightened rhetoric against Iran and its allies and vows not to engage “radicals and terrorists”?

There are a few reasons for the apparent “cooling-off” in U.S.-Israeli strategy. The failure to completely marginalize Hamas led to immense suffering among Palestinians, but actually strengthened the democratically elected group. Every attempt at eradicating Hezbollah yielded the exact opposite outcome; the group is also stronger than ever. The burning Israeli desire to ignite another American war against Iran is being met with little enthusiasm in the U.S., as Bush’s days in office are numbered.

It is unlikely that the remaining eight months in Bush’s regime will lead to the long-aspired geopolitical reconfiguration in the Middle East that neoconservative “intellectuals” were once so obsessed by.

It is highly doubtful that Olmert’s peace talks with Syria are an exclusively Israeli affair, designed to create a distraction from his personal woes. The regional implications of that decision — the future of the Syria-Iran, and Syria-Palestinian opposition alliance and the Israeli-Turkish political relationship — are too valuable for a personal gamble.

Moreover, while some may see Israel’s decision to engage Syria as an indication of the complete political independence under which Israel operates, it is also unlikely that the U.S. would permit an entirely free Israeli hand in reshaping regional politics while the former is engaged in a cold war and an active war in the same region.

The failures of the U.S.-Israeli policies in Lebanon and Palestine seem to have brought an end — for now — to the chaos agenda once espoused with such enthusiasm. Lebanon has not succumbed completely to civil strife, and Palestinians in Gaza are still not willing to unconditionally submit to Israel’s political diktats.

The new U.S.-Israeli strategies are likely to take a different approach — engaging each party separately, conceding little or nothing, and working diligently to break the regional alliance. This will start with Syria, which is expected to bring an end to its honeymoon with Palestinian opposition groups. It’s the least the country can do to express its sincerity in achieving “peace” and to obtain the U.S.-Israeli brand of a worthy “peace partner.”

Ramzy Baroud (www.ramzybaroud.net) is an author and editor of PalestineChronicle.com. His latest book is “The Second Palestinian Intifada: A Chronicle of a People’s Struggle” (Pluto Press, London).