- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 4, 2008


In some ways, the timing of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s Washington visit could hardly be worse. The Israeli leader, who meets today with President Bush at the White House, is in serious political trouble. An inconclusive war with Hezbollah, the Israeli government’s inability to stop rocket attacks from Gaza and Israeli court testimony that Mr. Olmert received $150,000 in cash from an American philanthropist have made the Israeli leader a political pariah at home. Polls indicate that more than two-thirds of Israelis want Mr. Olmert to resign, and members of his own Kadima Party speak publicly about holding a primary to choose his successor. Yet despite his tenuous hold on power, Mr. Olmert continues to push forward with a controversial plan for peace negotiations with Syria.

In April, Mr. Olmert volunteered that Israel would be ready to relinquish the entire Golan Heights in exchange for a peace agreement with Syria. Since then, Israel has reportedly been holding secret negotiations on the subject under Turkish auspices. The problem is that no one - including Mr. Olmert - has explained how these Israeli-Syrian talks would work any differently than peace negotiations that occurred during the 1990s under the dovish Israeli Labor Party governments headed by Prime Ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak.

Mr. Rabin and Mr. Barak tried repeatedly to negotiate on the basis of a complete withdrawal from the Golan, the strategic plateau that was captured by Israel in June 1967 after 19 years of sniper fire and other attacks from the Syrian side of the border. Israel wanted the talks to achieve demilitarization of the Golan or other security arrangements to prevent it from being used to stage attacks. Syria refused to seriously discuss such agreements, and the negotiations went nowhere.

Mr. Barak, currently Israel’s defense minister, said Monday that Damascus has higher priorities than getting the Golan back. Mr. Barak said the priorities include: 1) ensuring the continuity of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime; 2) blocking the international tribunal investigating the Feb.14, 2005, murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri; 3) getting international recognition of Syria’s “special” role in Lebanon; and 4) receiving assistance from Western countries analogous to what Egypt has received over the years. But it is impossible to see this taking place without a dramatic change in Syria’s behavior - and in particular, Damascus ending its strategic and military relationship with Tehran.

The alliance between Iran and Syria predates the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Bashar Assad’s late father, Syrian President Hafez Assad, who died in 2000, gave Ayatollah Khomeini sanctuary during the reign of the Shah of Iran. Syria was the first Arab country to recognize the Shi’ite revolutionary regime in Iran, and if anything relations between the two states have strengthened since then.

Mr. Olmert apparently thinks that the younger Assad can be split away from Iran. Perhaps the most vocal American proponent of this argument is Robert Malley, Middle East director at the National Security Council during the Clinton administration. Mr. Malley speculates that in the aftermath of Israeli-Syrian peace, Syria would rein in its support for terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. He also proffers the prospect that peace between Israel and Syria would force Iran to change its behavior. (Mr. Malley, an adviser to Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, resigned last month after it was learned that he had met with representatives of Hamas).

There is no evidence of Syrian willingness to moderate its behavior in any way. Damascus remains heavily involved in supporting Hezbollah and funnelling arms to terrorists operating in Hamas-controlled Gaza. Last week, Syrian Defense Minister Hassan Turkmani, concluding a three-day visit to Iran and meeting with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, signed a new memorandum of understanding on defense issues with his Iranian hosts. And less than three weeks ago, Hezbollah, with Iranian and Syrian backing, effectively staged a back-door coup in Lebanon.

For these and other reasons, the Bush administration has been urging Mr. Olmert to go slow in courting Damascus. But Mr. Olmert thus far has given little indication that he is listening.

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