Hagel misses, Israel-Syria panel hits

When Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) took to the podium at the Israel Policy Forum’s annual dinner last week, I was curious to hear what the moderate Republican, who is retiring from the U.S. Senate and had been mentioned during the presidential campaign as a possible secretary of state or defense in the Obama administration, would have to say about Israel and the Middle East to the left-leaning, pro-Israel crowd.

As it turns out, not much.

In a rambling address replete with worn cliches, empty utterances and desultory declarations — the kind of stuff you might find in a high school English essay written by a sophomore who hadn’t actually read the book in question — Hagel blew air, not substance, in his IPF keynote address.

  • "I have come to believe," Hagel said of the Middle East, that "that part of the world represents the strategic epicenter of great conflict."
  • "The regions of the world that have been left behind since World War II," Hagel said, "they are the most troubled areas of the world."
  • "Unless we are able to break through the fog," he went on, "we will continue to see a more dangerous, complicated world."

And more of the same. Plus, a lot of talk about the connection between conflict and the "human condition."

There are lots of ways to say nothing of substance while keeping your audience entertained, or at least giving them the sense that you know what you’re talking about, but Hagel flopped on both counts.

On the bright side, I had plenty to eat while the senator droned on and on. Even though IPF executive director Nick Bunzl told JTA’s own Jacob Berkman in October that the glitz of its annual banquet would be toned down this year, in keeping with these lean times, there actually was more food at this year’s gala than at last year’s, when the smorgasbord took the place of dinner and dessert was served during the keynote address (Haim Ramon spoke). I wish someone had told me that while I was stuffing my face with dumplings and eggrolls during the smorgasbord’s final, frantic minutes.

On another positive note, the evening included an interesting panel discussion on the prospects of Israeli-Syrian peace featuring Itamar Rabinovich, the former U.S. ambassador to Israel and a diplomat involved in past Israeli-Syrian peace talks, and Murhaf Jouejati, a Syrian-born professor who served as an adviser during the 1990s to Syria’s delegation on Israeli-Syrian talks.

Rabinovich pointed out that Israel’s current indirect talks with Syria under Turkish auspices represent the triumph of form over substance and are a step back from Israeli-Syrian talks during the 1990s, which were direct, involved a strong Israeli prime minister and had the blessing of the United States. A peace deal is not possible with an outgoing Israeli prime minister (Olmert) or without U.S. involvement, he noted.

That sets the stage for a new opportunity now, with a new U.S. president supportive of Israeli-Syrian talks and a new prime minister slated to take office in Israel (Benjamin Netanyahu, who leads the polls in elections scheduled for Feb. 10, nearly cut a deal with Syria last time he was prime minister).

Jouejati pointed to other positive signs for an Israeli-Syrian deal, noting that contacts between the two countries were established this time despite Israel’s bombing of a suspected Syrian nuclear target in September 2007, the U.S. boycott of Israeli-Syrian talks and the aftermath of the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah.

Rabinovich briefly mentioned one of the main sticking points, but it’s an area that deserves further consideration: Israel and America’s primary goal in securing an Israeli-Syrian peace deal is to woo Syria away from Iran’s orbit and into the West’s. The idea is that this would eliminate a fundamental conduit for Iran to pressure Israel — namely, through Shiite proxy militia in Lebanon, Hezbollah.

But Hezbollah already has 40,000 rockets, some of them thought capable of hitting Tel Aviv and points south, as well as a strangehold on Lebanese politics. Jouejati argues that an Israeli-Syrian peace deal would be a watershed in Israeli-Arab relations, bringing a lot more Arab countries into the Israeli diplmatic circle. But it’s not at all clear this would be the case, especially given Syria’s relatively weak position in the Arab world and its poor relationship with the area’s other main Arab power, Saudi Arabia.

And if the primary goal of an Israeli deal with Syria is to break the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah axis, isn’t it a bit too late given Hezbollah’s power?

Rabinovich and Jouejati would have faced these sorts of questions had there been more time, but, alas, there was a full dinner waiting to be eaten — not to mention a chocolate-fondue dessert spread.

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