Friday, January 19, 2007

Obstacle on the road to Damascus: Washington

I've learned from the Israeli press that my old friend, Alon Liel (seen above), a former Israeli diplomat, has been conducting secret negotiations with Syrian representatives:
Last update - 21:57 18/01/2007
Alon Liel: Israel rejected Syrian bid for wartime talks
By Yoav Stern, Haaretz Correspondent and The Associated Press

Syria is serious about resuming peace talks with Israel and even proposed holding secret high-level talks during the war in Lebanon last summer, which Israel rejected, retired diplomat Alon Liel said Thursday.

Israel's leaders quickly distanced themselves from reports leaked by Haaretz earlier this week that former Foreign Ministry director general Liel held unofficial talks with a Syrian.

Liel, going public for the first time Thursday, said he briefed government officials every step of the way. He said he believed his counterpart, Syrian-American businessman Ibrahim Suleiman, also had channels to the Syrian government.

"Our testimony is that it is very clear to us that Assad wants to talk," said Liel, referring to Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Liel and Suleiman were brought together by Geoffrey Aronson, head of the Foundation for Middle East Peace in Washington. Eight meetings were held, Liel said, including several reportedly under the auspices of the Swiss.

Liel would not say who his hosts were, but said he believed they used their own diplomatic contacts to check whether the messages coming out of the talks were reaching the Syrian government.

The last meeting took place in late July, during the Israel-Lebanon war, Liel said. On that day, several Israelis were killed by rockets fired by the Lebanese Hezbollah militia, which Israel says is backed and funded by Syria and Iran.

"It was a very difficult day, and the Syrian party suggested that since it's a war and an emergency situation, let's have a very quick track one meeting, high-level meeting, on the level of deputy ministers ... with an American in the room," Liel told a conference at the Netanya Academic College.

Liel said he told government officials of the offer, and pleaded with them to accept.

"And the answer was 'no, no we don't want to meet them'," he said.

He said he believes Israel is reluctant to resume peace talks with Syria because the idea of giving up the Golan is unpopular and because it would counter Washington's policy of trying to isolate Syria.

Liel said he made it very clear at the beginning of each meeting that he did not represent the government, but that he routinely updated Israeli officials, as well as the Turkish government, after each round. The Turkish government had initially been approached by the participants as a possible sponsor, but turned them down.

Aronson said the time is ripe for a resumption of peace talks, though he acknowledged that Syria could just be feigning interest in resuming talks to get into Washington's good graces.

"There is a reasonable basis to assume that well-intentioned official representatives have something to talk about when they sit down," he said.

On Tuesday when the meetings between Liel and Suleiman were first leaked, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert dismissed the talks. "I knew of nothing. No one in the government was involved in this matter. It was a private initiative on the part of an individual who spoke with himself," Olmert told reporters. "From what I read, his interlocutor was an eccentric from the United States, someone not serious or dignified."

Syrian officials said Tuesday that reports of an agreement were "baseless."

In June, the participants wrote a two-page "non-paper" to sum up their talks, Liel said. The centerpiece was a proposal to turn part of the Golan Heights, captured by Israel in the 1967 Six Day War and annexed in 1981, into a "peace park." Syria would be the sovereign in all of the Golan, but Israelis could visit the park freely, without visas.

There has been a serious debate in Israel over the idea of talking with Assad. I'm surprised that the American press hasn't been paying more attention to the fact that the Bush Administration has been pressing the Israeli NOT to negotiate with the Syrians.
Here is what the Economist has to say about the issue:
Israel and America

Spurning an olive branch

Jan 18th 2007
From The Economist print edition

America should not tell Israel to reject an overture from Syria

YOU are 6m Jews living in a sea of hostile Muslims. Fortunately you happen to be a good friend of the world's only superpower. Israel's interest is accordingly to stick closely to the policies of the United States. It stands to reason, doesn't it?

Perhaps not. America is constantly accused, and often with justice, of being uncritically supportive of Israel. What is less often noticed is that Israel is too often uncritically supportive of America. And although this may at first look as if it makes strategic sense for the Jewish state, it doesn't always.

Here is a case in point. Bashar Assad, Syria's dictator, appears to have been signalling lately that he is willing to hold peace talks with Israel. It seems that he is not even insisting, as his father Hafez used to, on Israel promising before any talks to give back the whole of the Golan Heights. Furthermore, according to revelations this week in Haaretz, Israel's liberal daily, some people from each side have already engaged in several years of secret, unofficial “track-two” diplomacy, going so far as to have produced a draft peace treaty (see article).

Sorry, but Uncle Sam says no
Plainly, Ehud Olmert, Israel's prime minister, should grab any opportunity to talk. For many decades most of Israel's enemies denied its right to exist, let alone to enjoy normal neighbourly relations. The Palestinians' Hamas movement and Iran still take that line. So even if talks with Syria did not lead immediately to peace—and they probably wouldn't unless Israel gave up the Golan—they would at least knock a mighty hole in the idea, once again spreading in the wider Muslim world, that the very existence of Israel is illegitimate and not to be accepted in any circumstances. And yet Mr Olmert has so far said no to talks. In saying no, moreover, he gave Israelis a singular reason. He said that by talking to the president of Syria Israel would upset the president of the United States.

Right now George Bush has reasons to be unfriendly to Mr Assad. Syria helps the insurgents in Iraq, is trying to topple the government of Lebanon and is desperate to evade whatever responsibility it may have had for killing Lebanon's former prime minister, Rafiq Hariri, in 2005. To the degree that peace talks with Israel would ease Mr Assad's isolation—and ingratiating himself with the West may well be the cynical extent of Mr Assad's intentions—they might indeed complicate America's present strategic calculations in the Middle East.

If you are a superpower, however, your strategy has a habit of changing, along with conditions, regimes and fashion. America has the luxury of being able to reassess its interests, drop old friends and find new ones, promote autocracy one day and emphasise democracy the next. Sometimes its attention swivels right away from the Middle East. Israel, on the other hand, has a permanent and perhaps existential interest in finding a way to get along with its neighbours. It really cannot afford to pass up any opportunity, however cynically motivated, to break the encircling wall of enmity.

If Mr Bush continues to instruct Israel to rebuff Mr Assad's overtures, Mr Olmert will no doubt obey orders. Strong Israeli prime ministers have in the past occasionally refused to take American instruction, but Mr Olmert was never strong and has been further weakened by his inept handling of last summer's war in Lebanon. He may, moreover, have his own cynical reasons for refusing a Syrian olive branch—such as an unwillingness to pay for peace by giving up the Golan, or to make his domestic problems worse by broaching the possibility.

If that is his reasoning, it is short-sighted. A land-for-peace deal in the West Bank and Golan remains Israel's best hope of security. It should be tireless in its quest for peace, even when its great ally is preoccupied elsewhere. In the long run, after all, resolving this conflict is in America's interest, too


Brian said...

Where does Olmert stand on negotiations with Syria? Well, he was please about of "The Lobby" preventing Syria from being removed from the Axis of Evil, contra the Hamilton-Baker report.

From Haaretz:

However, Olmert is foiling any possible progress on this track: On his way home from Los Angeles, the prime minister "calmed" the reporters - and perhaps even himself - by saying there is no danger of U.S. President George W. Bush accepting the expected recommendations of the Baker-Hamilton panel, and attempting to move Syria out of the axis of evil and into a coalition to extricate America from Iraq. The prime minister hopes the Jewish lobby can rally a Democratic majority in the new Congress to counter any diversion from the status quo on the Palestinians.

I agree that Olmert is more "reasonable" than the Neocons/Likud, but often the line is hard to see.

Anonymous said...

Brian - Haaretz is a left wing paper - You're supposed to be a conservative. Why trust them? j/k

Leo Strauss said...

Other than Bibi and his American friends, if we were actually sitting in Israel, why would any sane Israeli want to see Iraq transplanted right to Israel's borders?

What is interesting is the theory that it was the Americans who exposed the backchannel.

Of course, both Russert and Matthews said last nite that there are no signs the Administration has any designs for military action against Iran or Syria and that Bush is personally "surprised" at the reaction to his two speeches directly mentioning them.

So it must be true. Nothing to see here. Move along.