Syria visit underscores Bush failure

President Bush’s attack on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Damascus earlier this month underscored the utter failure of the Bush Administration to advance peace talks between Israel and its neighbors. After meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Syrian President Bashar Assad, Pelosi said that peace in the Middle East is a “high priority” and that both leaders said they would be ready to engage in peace talks.

Negotiations between Israel and Syria are possible. They have been waiting to happen for the past several months, but the Bush administration has done nothing to make them happen. Worse, according to numerous credible reports from Israel, the administration has actually pressured Israel not to explore Syria’s recent peace overtures.

By pursuing a dogmatic policy of punishing adversaries by not engaging with them, this administration is not only turning its back on America’s traditional role as peacemaker between Israel and its neighbors. It is also — whether explicitly or implicitly — denying Israel a valuable opportunity to explore the possibility of peace on its northern border.
Pelosi’s visit to Damascus, which so outraged the White House, helped underscore the real outrage: American policy is standing in the way of possible Arab-Israeli peace.

Sounds absurd? Not if you consider the facts.

For months, Assad and his aides have been publicly calling for unconditioned peace negotiations with Israel, a significant change in Syria’s position. In the past, Damascus insisted on Israel committing in advance to a full withdrawal from the Golan Heights, which Israel occupied in the 1967 war. Now, however, Syria is saying: everything is on the table, let’s talk. Last December, in an interview with an Italian newspaper, Assad personally addressed Olmert, urging him to engage: “Make an attempt, call our bluff,” Assad said.

Many in Israel have urged exploring what Assad has in mind, including senior members of Olmert’s cabinet. For many years, a tenet of Israel’s foreign policy has been not to reject the hand of an Arab leader extended in peace.

But Olmert and some members of his Kadima party publicly rejected negotiating with Syria. Why? Because that tenet clashed with another principle of Israeli foreign policy: never contradict the policies of America, Israel’s chief ally.

Israeli officials said that in so many words. On December 17, a day after Assad’s interview with La Repubblica, Israel’s cabinet discussed whether to engage with Syria. Some urged Olmert to make a move. Olmert explained why he wouldn’t.
“Bush has a clear position on this issue. One should ask whether, when the president of the United States, Israel’s most important ally, is struggling on every front — including the internal front — against those who are trying to thwart his policy, it is appropriate for Israel to say the opposite,” Olmert reportedly told his cabinet. While Olmert’s comment was made behind closed doors and leaked to the press, his close ally, Interior Minister Ronni Baron echoed his words in an interview with Israel Television’s Channel 10: “When the question on the agenda is the political legacy of Israel’s greatest friend, President Bush, do we really need now to enter into negotiations with Syria?”

Israeli officials, anonymously quoted by the Israeli media, said the Bush administration told Israel not to talk to Syria.
The administration denies this. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was recently quoted in the Israeli press as telling senior Israeli officials: “Don’t even think about” talking to Syria.

Israeli strategists do however think about ways to secure peace with their northern neighbors and about the potential advantages that could result from a successful policy of engagement. Reducing Iran’s regional influence, reducing the threat from Lebanon’s Hezbollah, weakening Palestinian terrorist groups that are now headquartered in Damascus, encouraging Palestinian pragmatism, improving Israel’s relations with other Arab states — these are just a few of the dividends that could result from merely engaging with Syria, to say nothing of the rewards that could come from an actual peace deal with Damascus.

The administration has so far been unsuccessful in changing Syria’s behavior through non-engagement. It may want to consider devising a measured carrot-and-stick policy toward Damascus. In the meanwhile, President Bush and his aides should not block Israel from exploring a potential possibility for peace. And if they choose not to help facilitate Israeli-Syrian peace talks, they have no business admonishing others who explore the possibility of talking.

Debra DeLee, former executive director and chair of the Democratic National Committee, is the president and CEO of Americans for Peace Now, a Zionist organization dedicated to enhancing Israel’s security through peace.