Bush Administration Roadblock To Peace

This column was written by Jo-Ann Mort.
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.)

But, at least so far, the United States is pressuring Israel not to deal either formally or informally with Syria. Friday's papers were chock-full of concerns expressed by Israel's top journalists about U.S. aims in the region. In a dispatch from the leading Yediot Ahranot newspaper reporters Nahum Barnea and Shimon Shiffer following Israel's call-up of more reserves, Prime Minister Edud Olmert was quoted saying he "will not be dragged into a war with Syria. I will not open a third front now." The authors pointed out that "Israel's Syrian problem is even more complex than can be ascertained from these remarks. Israeli decision makers are under the impression that there are people in the U.S. administration that would be very happy if Israel widened the war and dealt Syria a decisive blow."

But Israel has plenty of unfinished business with Syria. There is, in particular, the matter of the Golan Heights, which Israel captured from the Syrians in 1967 and defended against them in 1973. Syria wants the Golan returned; at some point, it's likely that will happen, but only in the context of a comprehensive peace agreement between the two countries. Meanwhile, a little testing of the waters between the two may be in order. This is a part of the world where diplomacy and deals are made with mirrors. Alas, that sort of Middle East dealing seems out of the scope of the White House's thinking.

Sources in Israel's Defense Ministry told me last week that in both the military escalation and fighting between Israel and Hezbollah in Israel's north and the abduction of the Israeli soldier by Hamas political chief Khalil Meshal in the country's south, there is a "major player — Bashar Assad," the president of Syria. "We don't plan to open a war front with Syria," I was told, "but we have to find ways to pressure Syria." However, this is "not simple because the U.S. has a very particular stand regarding the Syrians and they aren't going to allow Assad to play a central role."

As Yossi Beilin, the leader of the leftwing Meretz Party (which is not presently in the Israeli government coalition), puts it, "What the Americans are telling us is ridiculous. They are not helping us with the ceasefire, and the government's hands are tied because they can't talk to Syria or to Hezbollah." Referring to the U.S. agreement to let Israel continue fighting without pushing for an immediate ceasefire, Beilin adds: "So they give us time, like a present from the U.S. Thank you very much. I don't want this present. But on the other hand, they prevent us from negotiating with Syria either on a ceasefire or peace, which is a huge mistake."

Beilin said this before Sunday's news of the Israeli air raid on Qana in southern Lebanon provoked Rice to commit to forging a cease-fire agreement this week. It is in the United States' interest — and Israel's — to seek truly multilateral arrangements in concert with Europe. Rice's newfound urgency in engaging the immediate crisis is welcome, but without a more thoughtful broader U.S. strategy for the region, the notion of any lasting peace seems remote for everyone concerned.
By Jo-Ann Mort
Reprinted with permission from The American Prospect, 5 Broad Street, Boston, MA 02109. All rights reserved