The Bush administration’s decision this week to join an international conference on Iraq that is expected to include Iran and Syria opens the door to Israeli talks with Syria, something the U.S. has reportedly been strictly against, according to several Israeli analysts.
Although Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Tuesday that the U.S. would join the talks as part of “a new diplomatic offensive,” a change in its prior avoidance of high level contacts with Iran and Syria, she did not say there would be direct negotiations with them, something the bipartisan Iraq Study Group recommended.
But Arnon Soffer, a professor of geography and chairman of geostrategy at the University of Haifa, said the fact that America and Syria are meeting in the same room is a “very important step” that Israel should follow.
“If America is doing it, why shouldn’t Israel?” he asked. “We have the same right to do it. It is not an easy decision. We’re not choosing between good and bad, but between a scorpion and a snake.”
“Syria has a very important role in the Middle East, and I would suggest talking with Syria because it influences the problems in Lebanon and what is going on in the Gaza Strip,” Soffer added.
The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported last week that during Rice’s visit to Israel last month Israeli officials asked her whether they should explore Syria’s repeated calls for peace talks. Rice is said to have replied, “Don’t even think about it.”
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is said to favor such a hard-line approach, believing that the talks themselves would appear to be rewarding Syria. But Defense Minister Amir Peretz reportedly favors Syrian talks. Soffer said he believes the changed American attitude might now convince Olmert that the time is ripe for exploratory Israeli-Syrian talks.
“I don’t think this government has a policy or a vision and that America’s action may “push” Olmert into Syrian talks, he added.
Yossi Alpher, a Middle East analyst who favors preliminary back channel Israeli-Syrian talks, said the American move would now empower those who favor such talks to begin pressuring the Israeli government to launch them. But he said that may prompt the Bush administration to say its policy change pertained strictly to Iraq and did not apply to Israel. And he pointed out that the U.S. was joined by Saudi Arabia and Jordan in opposing Israeli-Syrian talks.
But Zalman Shoval, a former Israeli ambassador to Washington and a senior Likud Party adviser, said he is not convinced America’s decision to join the conference is a change in the country’s basic policy.
“The Israeli government’s position at this point is not to negotiate with Syria, even in back channel talks” he said. “This may have been influenced by the American position, but Israel has its own agenda regarding Syria. It is still most active in supplying arms to Hezbollah and in hosting adversary organizations in Damascus, like Hamas and others. Even if America were to change its position altogether, we would expect Syria to make certain moves with regard to ourselves to be able to make talks worthwhile.”
Mordechai Kedar, a Syrian expert at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, said America’s willingness to attend the conference with Syria is a sign the Iraqi government believes it needs Syria to stop insurgents from crossing its border into Iraq and that the U.S. wants Iraq to shape its own foreign policy. But he said Israel should be wary of talking to Syria unless it knows in advance where those talks would lead.
“It is not easy, but it can be done,” he said.
Kedar said he does not trust Syria and that he is concerned it might raise issues such as the Palestinians’ right of return after an agreement has already been signed and Israel has given back the Golan Heights.
“Syria might threaten to suspend the agreement unless Israel takes back its Palestinian refugees, who now number 350,000 and still live in refugee camps,” he said.
“So far, I have not seen a Syrian change in orientation from Moscow to the Washington camp” like Egypt did in the 1970s, Kedar said. “They are still in the deep pockets of the Russians and Iranians. Peace with Israel is a lonely star that cannot survive. If Israel were to give up the Golan, it should only be after a major change in the orientation of the Syrian regime.”
Meanwhile, the Olmert government had new ethics problems to deal with this week when the Israeli media checked the credentials of Esterina Tartman, the Tourism Minister designee, and found that she did not have a bachelor’s or a master’s degree, as she had claimed. Yisrael Beiteinu Chairman Avidgor Lieberman, a political ally of Olmert, made the appointment.
Gideon Rahat, a lecturer in political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said that if the media reports are correct and “she does not become a minister because she lied, it may be seen as a good sign because it will show that there are norms that should be kept.”
He noted that another person said to be under consideration for the job has been the subject of a corruption probe, and that the mayor of Tiberias, Zohar Oved, was arrested Tuesday on suspicion of giving bribes during the last election and granting favors in return for support. Last year, former Hadera mayor Yisrael Sadan was sentenced to eight months in jail for bribing three municipal representatives to join his coalition.
“You look everywhere and you see corruption,” Rahat complained. “You see corruption with [Olmert’s] chief of staff, in the top levels of the income tax authority. I don’t think the issue of corruption is over. There is a problem here and it really hurts the level of trust of people in government.
“After the second Lebanon war [last summer], trust is not so high and if there is also corruption, it is really bad,” Rahat added.
The ethics issue is also going to hurt Olmert and boost Likud Party leader Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu in his quest to be re-elected prime minister, according to Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University.
“It helps Bibi because it makes Lieberman look foolish and he has been building strength at the expense ofBibi and Likud,” he said.
“This could add support to Netanyahu in the Knesset and he doesn’t need much more there to topple the government — maybe only 10 votes.”