The Obama administration began putting its stamp on American foreign policy this week by dispatching two emissaries to Damascus to open the first U.S-Syrian talks in four years, and it sought to recruit Russia in its effort to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.
At a press conference in Jerusalem following talks with Israeli leaders, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton revealed that Jeff Feltman from the State Department and Dan Shapiro from the White House would go to Syria, which is still on the U.S. list of states that sponsor terrorism.
“We are reaching out to determine what, if any, areas of cooperation and engagement are productive, and that includes Syria,” she said.
Regarding the talks, Clinton, who shook hands with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem during a conference in Egypt Monday, said there “has to be a purpose for them and some perceived benefit accruing to the U.S. and our allies and our shared values.”
Steven Spiegel, a professor of political science at UCLA, said the talks could be very useful to Israel if they result in Syria’s disengagement from Iran and its proxies Hamas and Hezbollah—all three of which are committed to the destruction of Israel.
“The U.S. should not have a policy of giving Syrians gifts without getting any quid pro quos,” he said. “They have been involved in a very dirty business [of helping terrorists] and they have to clean up their act. It’s obvious we have to talk, but we have to make a deal in which both sides gain.”
Gerald Steinberg, a professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University, said the indirect talks Israel held with Syria last year under the auspices of Turkey must now “start from the beginning” once a new Israeli government in formed.
“The talks until now have not been serious because the United States has not been at the table,” he said, referring to a key Syrian demand since the talks began.
But Steinberg observed that if Israeli Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu ends up forming a narrow right-wing coalition government, it “might be more skeptical about Syrian intentions of breaking away from Iran.”
Zalman Shoval, a senior member of Netanyahu’s foreign policy team, recalled that the last time Netanyahu served as prime minister a decade ago, his government fell because its right-wing coalition partners refused to be flexible and brought it down.
“I hope his coalition partners have learned from that experience,” he said.
Shoval said Netanyahu has given Labor Party leader Ehud Barak until next week to decide if Labor will join his coalition because he wants to form his government by mid-March, within the proscribed time allowed by law.
Although the Labor Party Central Committee is to meet again next week to make a final decision about its future, Colette Avital, one of the party’s leaders, said that after a party meeting last week “there is a very strong decision I think taken by almost everyone not to get into a government.”
Should it join the government, she told a conference call organized by the Israel Policy Forum, it would spell the end of the party itself. By remaining in the opposition, the party would have time to “try to rebuild ourselves,” Avital said.
Shoval said the two-state solution both Labor and the Kadima Party are pushing is nothing more than a “slogan that has nothing behind it.”
Netanyahu believes instead that Palestinians in the West Bank must first see their standard of living improve and that he would work primarily on this economic initiative. In order to convince Kadima Party leader Tzipi Livni to join his government, Shoval said Netanyahu offered her the opportunity of writing with him the “underlying contract for a new coalition” but that she refused “because of her egocentrist attitude.”
Spiegel said Livni has made it clear that she would only join Netanyahu if his government pursued an agreement with the Palestinians based on a two-state solution or if he agreed to a rotation agreement in which they both served as prime minister for two years.
But neither scenario is realistic, Shoval insisted.
“What Netanyahu is saying is that it would be dangerous to put the cart before the horse and agree now to a Palestinian state when there is a distinct possibility that such a state would be taken over by Hamas and indirectly by Iran,” he explained.
Regarding Livni’s refusal to join Netanyahu’s government, Shoval said:
“She is naive and doesn’t understand the realities of politics. She has not more than 45 members of the Knesset who would support her [for prime minister] and Netanyahu has 65.”