Split On How To Deal With Syria


’Convergence” may soon be relegated to the scrap pile of outdated Mideast phrases, along with “road map” and so many others. For as Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert struggled this week to shore up his faltering coalition and respond to calls for a commission to examine the failures of the war in Lebanon, his plans to withdraw from large areas of the West Bank were shelved.

The government’s new focus will be on repairing the damage Hezbollah rockets caused in the north and strengthening that area in the event of further attacks.

“It will be more of a security government” rather than the planned peace government committed to a unilateral West Bank pullout, said Yossi Alpher, a political analyst.

He added that this would allow Olmert to “realign with the right wing because the government will now be dedicated to dealing with the growing threat from Islamists and Iran and Hezbollah and Hamas.”

But Yaron Ezrahi, a political science professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said such an approach would ignore one of the lessons of the war: the Israel Defense Forces is not the fighting force is used to be because instead of preparing for war it was performing police duties in the territories. “The occupied territories are not cards that give us strength but cards that poison us,” he said.

“I have students who belong to elite [IDF] units and who were sent to Lebanon unprepared,” Ezrahi said. “They had not rehearsed for war games. [Instead], they had accompanied school buses from one spot to another [in the territories].”

He said the Olmert government has been “at least seriously and perhaps fatally weakened. The next government is going to be committed to withdrawal from the occupied territories because this is the wish of the people. A stronger leader could perform the withdrawal with minimal internal strife.”

Olmert’s coalition began teetering this week when Labor Party members of the Finance Committee continued to balk at cutting 22 percent from welfare services to help pay for the war. The coalition chairman, Avigdor Yitzhaki, said the alliance would collapse if Labor, which is a part of the coalition, continued to oppose the cuts. He said he would ask Olmert to broaden the coalition.

The possibility that Olmert could be toppled, however, does not appear likely at this time, according to Tamir Sheafer, an associate professor of political science at the Hebrew University. He predicted the prime minister will survive by bringing into the government “people from the right,” which will keep him from making any peace overtures with Israel’s neighbors.

Meanwhile, Olmert appeared determined to maintain a naval and air blockade of Lebanon to prevent Iran and Syria from rearming Hezbollah. He said this week the blockade would not be removed until “robust” United Nations forces are deployed to assist Lebanese troops in enforcing Security Council Resolution 1701, which calls for Hezbollah to disarm.

Israeli forces carried out a pinpoint commando raid last weekend in the Bekaa Valley deep inside Lebanon and not far from the Syrian border in an effort to halt the flow of arms to Hezbollah. Once UN forces move along the Lebanese-Syrian border, Olmert said Israel would withdraw from Lebanon. But Syrian President Bashar Assad told a Dubai television interviewer this week that he would not permit international troops on his border because it “would be a withdrawal of Lebanese sovereignty and a hostile position.” Alpher said that comment was directed at the Lebanese government in an effort to “intimidate” it.“

Syria knows it can’t intimidate France or Italy,” he said, referring to two countries that have promised to contribute troops to the UN force. “This was a message to Lebanon to back off and let the arms flow through.”

Eran Lerman, director of the American Jewish Committee’s Israel/Middle East Office, said the international community should tell Assad that the Security Council resolution will be implemented and that if he tries to interfere “he will be considered an international outlaw.” If that does not happen, Israel will have to enforce the border between Syria and Lebanon, he said, because the most destructive missiles in the recent war came “from Syrian-supplied missiles that reached Haifa and had very destructive warheads and carried little ball bearings.” For Israel to permit Syria to resupply Hezbollah “would be a criminal act,” said Lerman, who was critical of Israeli leaders who this week called for peace talks with Syria. He said it “sends the wrong signal.”

“It might be logical to see if we could wean” Assad from Iran, “but if it ends up sending a message that he will be rewarded for what he is doing, it is highly problematic, and Olmert squashed it at an early stage.”

He was referring to Olmert’s remarks this week that he had ruled out talks with Syria, calling it the “single most aggressive member of the axis of evil. … I am the last person who will say I want to negotiate with Syria.”

But Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter told Israel Army Radio that he would be willing to give up the Golan Heights in exchange for peace with Syria.

“We have paid similar territorial prices for peace with Jordan and Egypt,” he said. Although saying that the water question and the Lake Kinneret were serious and difficult issues, Dichter said that “any political process is preferable to a military-fighting process.”

Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, pointed out that Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni appointed Yaakov Dayan to explore possible talks with Syria. And he said there were reports that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice also wanted to explore such talks but that President George W. Bush rejected the move.

“It seems a logical avenue to explore,” Alterman said, referring to talks with Syria. “I think the Syrians want to talk even more than we want to talk to them — and we can use that to our advantage.”

Although Assad delivered a forceful speech Aug. 15, filled with threats and bravado, Shibley Telhami, who holds the Sadat chair at the University of Maryland, said the “hot rhetoric was to cover up the fact that he is looking for a way to start negotiations.”

“I suspect that Israel is going through a phase of assessments,” he added. “I don’t think Israel has made up its mind. I do not believe there is a bilateral solution to a Lebanese-Israeli settlement without an arrangement with Syria.” Telhami said the Syrian-Iranian alliance is one of convenience and that “given the right options, Syria could be persuaded to join the peace camp with Egypt and Jordan. There are people in the Arab world, particularly in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, who think Syria could be persuaded because [its alliance with Iran] is not an ideological one.”

Telhami pointed out that in 1990, Syria was persuaded to join the coalition that fought against Saddam Hussein in the first Gulf War. Because the U.S. has refused to talk to Syria since it withdrew its ambassador from Damascus following the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005 — an action many believe was ordered by Syria — the U.S. could not host any Syrian-Israeli talks, noted David Newton, an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute.

Instead, he said, the Syrians would want an international conference that could be put together by the authors of the roadmap for peace — the U.S., Russia, the European Union and the United Nations.Newton, who was America’s deputy chief of mission in Syria from 1979-81 and a top U.S. representative to the Israeli-Syrian talks in Madrid in 1992, said he agreed with former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s observation that you “can’t make war without Egypt or peace without Syria.” He said Assad feels encouraged by the way Hezbollah fought Israel.

Assad wants the Golan Heights back, said Newton, and he will “continue to make life difficult until he gets it back. … He is not in as strong a position as his father, and this is an opportunity to strengthen himself and show himself a leader.

”Newton said the reason he believes Israeli-Syrian talks are needed to resolve differences between the two countries is because the war in Lebanon demonstrated that there are limitations to using military power for political ends.

“The Israeli people are beginning to sense the limitations, just as Americans are sensing the limitations in Iraq,” he said.