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U.S., Israel plan to upgrade ties

Israeli Prime Minster Ehud Olmert, left, meets with President George Bush, before the peace parley in Annapolis, Md. on Nov. 26, 2007. (Eric Draper/ White House)

Israeli Prime Minster Ehud Olmert, left, meets with President George Bush, before the peace parley in Annapolis, Md. on Nov. 26, 2007. (Eric Draper/ White House)

JERUSALEM (JTA) — Israel seems set to start 2008 with a major foreign policy achievement: During U.S. President George W. Bush’s visit here next week, Israel and the United States are expected to announce a significant upgrading of diplomatic, economic and military ties.

The upgrade is bound to affect Israel’s other major foreign policy goals for the coming year: curbing Iran, launching negotiations with Syria and making progress toward peace with the Palestinians.

Confident of success, Israeli officials say the Bush visit will focus on three issues: energizing the peace process with the Palestinians sparked at Annapolis, Md., upgrading U.S.-Israel ties and coordinating policy on Iran.

“All the parties — Americans, Israelis and Palestinians — have a strong interest in a visit that makes an impact,” a senior Israeli official told JTA.

Israel’s other foreign policy objectives for 2008 were outlined in a recent memo sent to Israeli embassies overseas by the Foreign Ministry’s director general, Aharon Abramovitz. The objectives listed include progress with Palestinians on the basis of two states for two peoples, developing a diplomatic response to Iran’s nuclear drive, diplomatic efforts to stop the smuggling of arms to Hezbollah forces in Lebanon and opening channels of communication to states in the Middle East with which Israel does not yet have ties. Most interestingly, the memo talks about the need to “evolve a strategy to detach Syria from the radical (Iranian-led) axis.”

Bringing Syria over to a pro-Western orientation would have obvious advantages for Israel: It would weaken Iran and prevent the overland flow of weaponry to Hezbollah.

Olmert has made no secret of the fact that he wants to launch peace talks with Syria as soon as conditions are ripe. Last week, he sent another message to that effect to Syrian President Bashar Assad. Olmert told U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), who was in Jerusalem on his way to Damascus, that he had asked the Syrians whether they were ready for peace talks on Israel’s terms.

“So far I have not received a clear answer and I am still waiting,” Olmert said, suggesting that the offer was still on the table.

The Israeli intelligence assessment, however, is that Syria will not be ready for serious peace talks with Israel until it is sure of receiving an American quid pro quo. In other words, in return for giving up its ties to Tehran, Damascus would want guarantees from the United States of military and economic support, like that which Egypt got when it made peace with Israel in 1979.

According to the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s intelligence department, Assad does not think he will get that kind of commitment from Bush; therefore, Assad is waiting for the next U.S. administration to take office before making any substantive moves.

“Damascus is interested in a settlement with Israel, but only on its terms and with American involvement,” department head Nimrod Barkan told the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.

One of the big challenges for Israeli foreign policy will be what to do about the Hamas radicals in the Gaza Strip as peace negotiations with the more moderate Fatah leadership in the West Bank moves ahead. Currently, the government’s policy is to exert maximum military and economic pressure on Gaza while accelerating peace talks with the Palestinian Authority and boosting the economy in the West Bank, where the authority rules.

“If we have a model, it’s the two Germanies of the Cold War,” a senior official told JTA. “While in the West Bank, as in West Germany, we are going to have political and economic progress and people are going to feel their lives are improving, in Gaza, as in East Germany, there will be stagnation. Ultimately, it will implode. But as with East Germany, how it will happen or how long it will take, we can’t say.”

There is an opposing school of thought, however, which argues that Hamas is here to stay and that the Israeli government would do better to seek a long term ceasefire with the radicals in Gaza rather than trying to crush them. With Hamas apparently offering a ceasefire package including a prisoner exchange involving the abducted Israeli soldier Cpl. Gilad Shalit, this may be one of the first major foreign policy decisions Olmert will be called upon to make in 2008.

As for Israel’s relationship with the United States, the precise form the anticipated enhancement of Israel-U.S. ties will take is not yet clear. High-level teams from both sides are still working on the details.

One of the ideas initially considered but since questioned is the establishment of a formal military pact. Although this would signal a dramatic tightening of the strategic alliance between Israel and the United States, it also would limit both countries’ freedom of maneuver, and both sides have expressed reservations about it.

The idea was raised several weeks ago by Yoram Ben Zeev, the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s outgoing director general for North America. In an internal memo, Ben Zeev argued forcefully for a formal pact with the United States, primarily on the grounds that it would help deter Iran from attacking Israel. Under the terms of such a pact, the United States would consider any military attack on Israel an attack on America, appreciably strengthening Israel’s deterrent posture.

Ben Zeev noted that Israel had sought such a pact in the past, but, he argued, conditions in Washington never have been as favorable as they are now. Bush has been one of the most supportive presidents Israel has ever known, and the current Congress, especially in an election year, would be sure to give the idea wall-to-wall backing, he wrote.

But the idea ran into strong opposition in the Israeli Foreign Ministry and other arms of government, and it is not clear where Prime Minister Ehud Olmert stands. Opponents argue that a formal pact with the United States would tie Israel’s hands, forcing it to seek U.S. approval for any preemptive strike on Iran. That, opponents said, would weaken rather than enhance Israel’s deterrence. Moreover, a formal pact with the United States could involve Israel in distant U.S.-led wars.

The main U.S. objection is that a formal pact with Israel could seriously limit U.S. flexibility in the conduct of foreign policy in the Arab and Muslim worlds. The upside for the United States is that it might induce Israel to go further in peacemaking with the Palestinians.

Israeli and U.S. officials discussed the pact proposal during the Clinton years and in the early years of the Bush presidency, but put the idea on hold after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Israeli officials refuse to confirm or deny whether it is now again on the agenda, but insist that “ways will be found to upgrade diplomatic, military and economic ties.”

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