America impedes peace in Mideast

October 19, 2006|By Ori Nir

It used to be that American administrations, seeking Middle East stability, encouraged Israel to negotiate peace with its Arab neighbors, particularly with Syria. Now, astonishingly, the Bush administration seems to be doing the opposite.

Syrian President Bashar Assad keeps saying that he wants to negotiate peace. In an interview last week with the BBC, Mr. Assad again challenged Israel to the negotiating table, saying, "It takes two to tango." He added, however, "as some say, the decision for peace now is not in Israel, it is in Washington."

Following Israel's war against Hezbollah in Lebanon this summer, Israeli politicians - including Defense Minister Amir Peretz and Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter - also have been urging peace talks with Syria. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni even appointed a senior official as a special "project manager" for possible future contacts with Syria.

Washington, however, is reportedly saying no. Israeli news media have consistently reported over the past several weeks that the Bush administration has made it clear to Israel that any Damascus diplomacy would hinder America's efforts to isolate the Assad government and punish it.

Israel's largest circulation newspaper, Yediot Ahronot, recently reported that Israelis "understood from President Bush that the United States would not take kindly to reopening a dialogue between Israel and Syria." Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert received "tough messages" from the Bush administration against diplomacy with Damascus, the newspaper reported.

Obviously, there are good reasons for Mr. Bush to be angry at Syria. The Assad regime has been thumbing its nose at Washington for years. It has been less than cooperative in blocking the flow of militants into Iraq to join the insurgency; it offers a haven for terrorists; it is cooperating with Iran and has been playing a destructive role in Lebanon. Israel, too, has good reasons to be unhappy with Mr. Assad, who hosts Palestinian terrorist leaders and who helped supply Hezbollah with rockets.

But most Israelis are pragmatic. Public opinion polls show that most Israelis support peace negotiations with Damascus. They know that a peace agreement with Syria is in Israel's vital interest. Such a treaty would dramatically reduce the threat of Syria's missile arsenal, as well as the threat of its chemical and biological weapons. It would push Palestinians to be more forthcoming toward an agreement with Israel over the future of the West Bank. It could open the road for Israel to further normalize relations with other Arab states. It could also encourage Syria to seal its porous border with Lebanon, stopping the shipments of weapons to Hezbollah.

Most of all, Israeli-Syrian talks could contribute to the international effort, which the Bush administration is leading and Israel staunchly supports, to isolate Iran and diminish its regional influence. They could sway Syria - Iran's strategic partner - from the regional militant camp to the more moderate one, placing it in the company of Arab states such as Jordan and Egypt, which signed peace agreements with the Jewish state.

Of course, it is certainly possible that Mr. Assad is bluffing. He may not be seeking peace but merely trying to avoid America's wrath by going through the motions of a peace process with Israel.

But don't Israelis have the right - indeed, the duty - to call Mr. Assad's bluff and find out for themselves? The Bush administration may believe that denying diplomacy is a worthy tool to punish its adversaries. Some will argue that this strategy worked with Libya. It certainly is not working with adversaries such as Iran and North Korea.

At any rate, the desire to punish the Syrian regime is not enough of a reason to block Israeli-Syrian diplomacy. Israel cannot afford to miss an opportunity for peace just for the sake of punishing an adversary. For Israel, pursuing peace is an existential imperative.

In fact, by forbidding Israel to - at the very least - call President Assad's bluff, the White House could very well end up bullying Israel, America's staunchest ally, toward disaster. As chances for peace dim, the threat of war becomes more formidable. That is always the case in the Middle East.

If the Bush administration opts not to assume the role of its predecessors in facilitating Arab-Israeli peace, it ought to move aside and not block Israel's way in pursuing peace with its neighbors.

Ori Nir, former Washington correspondent for the Forward, is the spokesman for Americans for Peace Now, a Zionist organization that promotes Israel's security through peace and supports the Israeli Peace Now movement. His email is

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