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Will Olmert, Assad Negotiate Directly?

Will Olmert, Assad Negotiate Directly?

The summit conference of Mediterranean leaders in Paris this weekend will offer Syrian President Bashar Assad and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert a chance to advance peace talks. The two men will be in the same room, among a group of 40 leaders, for the first time. And though no direct meeting is scheduled between Assad and Olmert, there is speculation that it might take place.
Analysts in Israel disagree, though, over whether that would be a good thing.
“Anything this regime [Syria] signs isn’t worth the paper it’s written on,” said Mordechai Kedar, an Arab expert at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic studies.
He pointed out that Syria has violated “since day one” United Nations Resolution 1701, which stopped the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah terrorists in Lebanon. The resolution contained a Syrian promise to stop shipping Iranian arms to Hezbollah.
The key to the success of any Israeli-Syrian talks, however, is the United States, and the Bush administration has no interest in them, according to Gerald Steinberg, a professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University.
He noted that Assad told France’s Le Figaro last week, “We do not think that the current American administration is capable of making peace. … We are betting on the next president and his administration.”
Steinberg said Israeli defense officials are encouraging the Syrian talks in the belief that if successful, they might “pull Syria away from the Iranian camp.
“Those of us who are skeptical about this don’t see that happening,” he said.
But a group of former American ambassadors and experts on the Middle East released a policy paper this week encouraging the U.S. to facilitate the Israeli-Syrian peace talks. Such a move, they argued, would not only “promote vital U.S. interests in the region” but also benefit Israel.
The paper, prepared under the auspices of the Israel Policy Forum, noted that if the Bush administration is not prepared to facilitate the talks, “the next president [should] do so as soon as possible after he takes office.”
It insisted that peace between Israel and Syria would go a long way towards a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace.
“As the United States tries to rebuild its image, influence and prestige in the Arab and Muslim worlds, the quality of its efforts to bring about a comprehensive peace between Israel and all of its neighbors will be of transcendent importance,” it said.
One of the paper’s authors, Steven Spiegel, a professor of political science at UCLA and a national scholar of the IPF, said in an interview that if the U.S. joined the talks as Syria has requested, it might cause Syria to change its policies toward anti-Western actions regarding Iraq, Lebanon, Iran and Israel.
“If we see signs of [such] improvement, we should enhance our relations with Syria as a quid pro quo,” he said. “But we won’t get the maximum [benefit] we could get from Syria as long as we stay out of the talks.”
Spiegel said that although he does not foresee the Bush administration changing its position, “we wanted to make the argument and not regret six months from now that we didn’t.”
Among the paper’s signers are Samuel Lewis, former U.S. ambassador to Israel, and Robert Pelletreau and Edward Walker, both former American assistant secretaries of state for Near Eastern Affairs.
Dan Diker, director of the Institute for Contemporary Affairs at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, pointed out that by opening indirect talks with Syria and Iranian-backed Hamas and Hezbollah, Israel has “angered many of its Arab friends in the neighborhood.”
He pointed out that the two Arab countries that have peace treaties with Israel, Egypt and Jordan, are fearful of Iran and “wonder why Israel is reaching out to their enemies.”
Kedar, of the Begin-Sadat Center, noted also that Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states are “not happy” with Israel’s decision to “swap two dead [Israeli] soldiers” for Samir Kuntar, the killer of an Israeli father and his 4-year-old daughter, four other Lebanese prisoners and the remains of about 200 Hezbollah terrorists.
“This is unprecedented,” Kedar said. “Israel is empowering an anti-establishment organization.”
The trade is expected to take place in the coming days. An opinion poll this week found that 60 percent of Israelis support the exchange.
Should Israel release Kuntar, it should then press the United States for the release of Jonathan Pollard, according to David Hermelin, president of the Likud Party’s young leadership division.
Pollard, a U.S. Navy civilian intelligence analyst, has been serving a life sentence since 1986 for passing classified information to Israel.
“It’s about time after more than 20 years that the U.S. free Pollard,” Hermelin said during a visit here last week. He said his 26,000-member group, the Young Likud Congress, would write to Bush to encourage him to take that step.
A senior American official was quoted last week as saying such a move was unlikely.

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