It's often said, and sometimes not in the kindest of ways, that the United States looks out for Israel's interests rather than its own. But the current crisis in the Middle East is demonstrating that, sometimes, the opposite is true. In this case, Israel's interests are being subjugated to the Bush administration's ideological hang-ups — at the expense of the security needs of both countries.
The provocations on Israel's northern and southern borders that have led to escalated engagements in Gaza and southern Lebanon share a common link: Syria. But the Bush Administration has made it clear that it doesn't believe Syria can or should be engaged diplomatically to resolve the crisis. On Friday, the United Nations Middle East Envoy Terje Roed-Larsen told reporters that the crisis couldn't be resolved without engaging Syria. This is a widely shared sentiment — and whether or not the United States yields on its stance could very well determine how long the fighting continues.
Israel is caught in the contradictions of White House policy — between the Bush Administration's commitment to combating terrorism and its ideological notions about democracy promotion in the Middle East. The administration doesn't merely spend too little time in this part of the world engaging issues and working to improve the situation; it also bring its own fixed notions to superimpose on a region that isn't buying them. As one Israeli political analyst with a former intelligence background quipped to me last week, Condoleezza Rice showed that she had "learned nothing" when she came to Israel for her version of shuttle diplomacy and announced that the United States was seeking a "new Middle East." Indeed, the pragmatists both inside and outside of Israel's present government see something different than that in their neighborhood, and they aren't expecting a Madison or Jefferson in their neighboring countries any time soon.
Meanwhile, the Israelis are worried that the United States may have Syria in mind as a new target for regime change. That outcome has the potential to be disastrous, further destabilizing a region already seemingly in freefall. In fact, some discrete engagement with Syria is probably needed right now.
And that's what Israel seems to desire. Voices are emerging here expressing Israel's interest in having Syria in the diplomatic mix to settle some short-term and long-term problems. (Significantly, when a decision was made to call up Israel's military reserves late Thursday, the security cabinet ministers went out of their way to make a gesture assuring Syria that it was not the target of an attack by Israel, stating that any expansion of the military operation would have to receive cabinet authorization. Their message was clear.)