Why the U.S. should support Israel-Syria talks

With the Bush administration seemingly reticent to wholeheartedly endorse Israel-Syria peace talks, the Israel Policy Forum offers a paper – crafted by former U.S. ambassadors to Middle East countries, among others – focusing on what the United States stands to gain from Israeli-Syrian détente.

The importance of bringing America into the talks is no small thing, the authors write. Only the U.S. can offer Syria the incentives and western embrace it requires to drop its position within Iran’s sphere of influence – just as only the U.S. could offer Egypt an alternative for Soviet backing at the time of the Israel-Egypt peace accord.

The authors write:

By setting aside the diplomatic “tool box,” however, the Bush administration seems to be signaling a preference for defeat over dialogue when it comes to the prospect of engaging the regime of President Assad.

As a practical matter, therefore, the question of what to do about Israeli-Syrian peace talks may well fall squarely on whoever occupies the Oval Office on the afternoon of January 20, 2009. We think the following factors are worth considering:

* As Iraq shows signs of gradually stabilizing, American-Syrian talks might yield agreements producing substantial benefits for the government in Baghdad while helping to relieve Syria of the enormous Iraqi refugee burden it is carrying.

* If there is a degree of genuineness in this Turkish-Syrian-Israeli initiative, the parties can conduct their respective “due diligence” processes and tackle some technical negotiating details without American assistance between now and early 2009. While we would like to see the Bush administration convert an apparent demand for American facilitation services into a gain for U.S. foreign policy objectives, we suspect the president prefers a different course.

* Contrary to the apparent beliefs of the Assad regime, a new American president—Republican or Democrat—will not automatically sign up to the proposition that the United States should dive into Israeli-Syrian talks forthwith and approach the bilateral relationship with Damascus with a blank slate. Iraq and Lebanon will be inherited issues. If Syria wants a positive relationship with Washington, cooperation over Iraq and an accommodation over Lebanon are essential. The new administration would do well to define what it wants, when it wants it, and what it is prepared to give in return. In short, tough-minded and disciplined diplomacy should come back into vogue—it is a tool of American power that no American commander-in-chief should be reluctant to use.

* If Damascus proves unwilling to be helpful with Iraq and determined to restore its suzerainty over Lebanon, it will be difficult for any American administration to obtain the requisite domestic political support to play an active role in helping Syria, through facilitation and mediation, recover the lands it lost to Israel in 1967.

* The dilemma for which Damascus holds an important key is that notwithstanding its bad relationship with Washington, a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace is essential to American national security interests. 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. While no American need ever apologize for the special relationship between the United States and Israel and while no one need ever doubt the depth and permanency of America’s commitment to Israel’s security, it is important that the United States be seen as striving for peace and justice in the Arab-Israeli context. Without sacrificing any legitimate national security interest, Syria—if it wants a good relationship with Washington and if it wants a vital American role in its discussions with Israel—can help make it possible for the next president (and even this one) to pursue a peace whose achievement would disappoint only Osama bin Laden, his disciples, like-minded extremists, and Iran.

Therefore, success of the Turkey mediated Israeli-Syrian talks would promote vital US interests in the region. If the current US administration is not prepared to facilitate and join them, we urge the next president to do so as soon as possible after he takes office.

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