The Big Thaw? America, Israel, Syria and Iran

Categories: Letters From Leadership

The political turmoil in Israel from the explosive Winograd Report did not prevent Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni from traveling to Egypt last week to meet with her Egyptian and Jordanian counterparts—who will now make an unprecedented visit to Israel—to discuss the Arab League peace initiative. Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev struck a new note with the observation that “of course moderate Arab leaders can’t replace the Palestinians as partners in peace, but they can provide an atmosphere that is conducive to moderation.”

To add to this burst of peace diplomacy, Livni was reportedly preparing for the possibility of renewed Israeli peace talks with Syria. An Israeli Foreign Ministry source told Ha’aretz, “’If the prime minister decides that he wants to hear it, we have a prepared plan – from the operational aspect as well.’ The project has included a series of discussions between Livni and senior ministry staffers with the goal of mapping Israel’s vital interests in any such talks.”

Livni is said to have closely studied the possibility of talks with Syria immediately after last summer’s Lebanon war, and refocused the Foreign Ministry on Syrian-Israeli diplomacy two months ago. She asked Foreign Ministry specialists for “a detailed map of the risks and opportunities entailed in talks with Syria.” The Foreign Ministry concluded that Syria is “not yet militarily ready for war with Israel and its desire for negotiations is genuine.” Despite a dissenting opinion from the Mossad, both IDF Military Intelligence and Israel’s National Security Council, representing a clear majority of Israel’s intelligence community, have concluded that the peace signals that Syrian President Bashar Assad is sending are serious and should be explored fully by Israel. The Foreign Ministry also warned that Damascus will not accept a continuation of the status quo, and “if Israel does not respond positively to Assad’s calls, war could break out between the countries.”

In another telling sign of thaw with Syria, Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice met last week with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem at an international conference on Iraq held in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. Observers noted that “It was the first high-level meeting between the two countries since President Bush recalled his ambassador from Damascus in February 2005 after the assassination of Rafik Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister.” Readers will recall that President Bush spared no criticism of US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) for leading a congressional delegation to Damascus and holding talks with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. “President Bush denounced the visit, calling it ‘counterproductive’ and saying it sent mixed signals to a government that his administration has been trying to isolate,” reported the Washington Post.

Meanwhile back in balmy Baghdad, the chief U.S. military spokesman, Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV, announced that Syria has tightened its border in recent weeks. “There has been some movement by the Syrians,” he said. “There has been a reduction in the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq for more than a month.” Note well: this dramatic change in Syria’s behavior towards the U.S. is a portent of larger things to come.

And Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who had agreed to meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas bi-weekly to talk about day-to-day issues (rather than to conduct substantive political negotiations), denied that he was pursuing secret talks with Abbas—a sure sign that they were indeed taking place.

Finally, Syria expert Prof. Joshua Landis reveals in his Syria Comment blog that “Iran has thoroughly penetrated the new Iraqi state that the US is building.” He notes that “very troubling documents have surfaced recently that demonstrate that Iraq’s Prime Minister Maliki is helping Iran infiltrate the two leading Shiite militias of Muqtada al-Sadr, America’s enemy in Iraq, and of Hakim’s Badr forces, which is backed by the US. Saudi Arabia is upset by Iran’s internal takeover of the Iraqi security forces, which has been done under American noses.”

As the US failure in Iraq deepens, the Bush Administration may be increasingly compelled at long last follow the recommendations of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, also known as the Baker-Hamilton commission. That panel of distinguished Americans had urged the Administration to engage both Syria and Iran, Iraq’s neighbors, in negotiations to find a political solution for ending Iraqi sectarian violence and insurgency. The first moves in that direction are already under way. In addition to Rice’s meeting with the Syrian foreign minister, and major changes in Syrian anti-insurgent activity, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq is slated to meet with his Iranian counterpart in Baghdad soon to discuss Iraqi security efforts and cooperation between the countries.

Yes, you read that right: the US is about to talk directly to Iran, albeit about Iraq only at this point–or so the official story goes. Some seasoned Middle East observers are already suggesting that “it isn’t realistic to think these talks will be limited to Iraq… they will have to take up the place of Iran in the whole regional picture.” The Baker-Hamilton panel also implored the Administration to address the broader issues of Arab-Israeli peace and security, to strengthen US-allied Sunni Muslim forces in the region and weaken Iran and Hezbollah, by promoting Israeli negotiations with Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinians, now under the new rubric of the Arab League Peace Initiative.

Despite the recent “assurances” of U.S. Deputy National Security Advisor Elliott Abrams to a group of Jewish Republicans that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s Arab-Israeli peace efforts are “just process” designed to keep America’s Arab and European allies “on the team,” Israel and the U.S. may be headed towards broad engagement with Syria.

And while the organized Jewish community is predictably calling exclusively for sanctions and divestment from Iran, effectively identifying itself with the Republican right and distancing itself from the dominant centrist Democratic (and moderate Republican) view which favors both carrots and sticks—sanctions and diplomacy—the signs are mounting that Iran may be next: not for war, but for the opening of a dialogue with the U.S.               

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