Amid all the controversy American support for Israel has generated in recent months, between the Walt-Mearsheimer paper, Jimmy Carter’s book, et al, many have lost sight of the damage the Bush Administration’s policies are doing to Israel and to any hope of resolving the ongoing Middle East conflict.
I’ve mentioned previously in this space the interference of the US in Israeli-Syrian relations. The problem is continuing to grow, and is all the more obscene because there are realistic and attainable options, something that is not usually the case with American Middle East policy.
This article in Ha’aretz by Ze’ev Schiff offers both illustration of the problem and some obfuscations and omissions as well.
The visit by Defense Secretary Robert Gates to Israel was already significant for being another in a line of signals that an attack on Iran is not forthcoming. Israel’s message to him was equally noteworthy.
There have been reports for some time that Syria has been building up its military in preparation for a war with Israel. No one believes Syria is foolish enough to actually launch a first strike on Israel. But they are concerned that Israel will attack them, for a variety of reasons. And that puts their military in a more mobilized state. This is met by increased Israeli preparations, which, in turn, creates a situation where it is more likely that events either on the Syrian border or in Lebanon could trigger a conflict between Israel and Syria.
Israel has little interest in attacking Syria, though one can hardly blame the Syrians for being skeptical about this point. But even the Olmert government has generally realized that weakening the Assad regime in Syria would only lead to less welcome alternatives in that country. Whenever the US has raised the idea of attacking Syria, Israel has rejected it on precisely those grounds. Still, increasing military mobilization which is occurring in both Syria and Israel makes the possibility of an armed engagement more likely, whether either party actually wants it or not. Such unintended flare-ups are not uncommon in history in many parts of the world, most less volatile than the Middle East.
The obvious alternative to all of this is diplomatic engagement with Syria, a course which has significant, albeit minority, support in the Israeli government and military. That minority support, however, would quickly become a strong majority were it not for the stern opposition to diplomacy from the Bush Administration.
Schiff repeats in his article the conventional wisdom that engaging Syria and thus diminishing their isolation would be a serious blow to the US-backed Siniora government in Lebanon. Leaving aside the dubious value of US support as reflected in America’s actions during last summer’s Israeli onslaught on Southern Lebanon, the notion that diminishing Syria’s isolation in the Arab world would harm the Siniora government is highly debatable.
This idea flies in the face of the accusations that Syria has been a key actor in orchestrating the ongoing protests led by Hezbollah that have, at times, threatened to overwhelm the Siniora government. Moreover, as I’ve pointed out before, Syria has a number of different avenues it can pursue to exert influence in Lebanon; a less isolated Syria might turn toward other options, at least to some degree, rather than putting as much of its weight as it does behind Hezbollah. Finally, a less isolated Syria would actually work with other Arab states such as Saudi Arabia, even if it continues to back Hezbollah fully, to maintain calm in Lebanon. And the Siniora government, which has problems of corruption and a strong perception of weakness in the wake of last summer’s war, that could undermine it without any change in Syria’s positions as they currently stand.
Instead, it is far more likely that the US is reluctant to see diplomacy with the last isolated spoke in the axis of evil. Olmert, who is desperately trying to cling on to a policy where Israel refuses to talk with its nemeses, is gladly following along.
Indeed, the weak and directionless Olmert government, with approval ratings so low they approach zero, continues to throw in its lot with the failing Bush Administration, despite the consequences to Israel. This was evident in his comments after Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Syria, a trip closely coordinated with Israel, yet one which greatly angered the White House. Olmert tried to do Bush’s bidding and embarrass Pelosi, then scramble to mend fences with the Democrats who now control Congress. Predictably, he ended up satisfying no one and looking the fool himself, a role he has been cast in all too often.
There is only a year and a half left of Bushite misadventures. The Democrats remain, of course, staunchly pro-Israel, but their relationships with both the Olmert government and AIPAC have been strained by those bodies’ lock-step support of Bush Administration policies. The Democrats clearly intend to chart a different course, one which will likely have much more resemblance to the policies of Bill Clinton. That, to be sure, presents its own challenges to advocates of a just peace. But if Olmert continues to pursue a policy where he avoids making any conciliatory move (and his obfuscation in response to the Arab league initiative indicates that he will), he will be leading Israel down a path to increased violence and insecurity.
Finally, it’s important to address the last paragraph in Schiff’s article, which implies a relatively neutral Israeli stance and a belligerent Syrian one. Syria’s statements are obviously a bit of posturing, and, since they are the ones who have a claim and demand, whereas Israel is only interested in maintaining the status quo vis a vis Syria, the tone reflects that imbalance more than anything else. Moreover, Schiff’s interpretation of Syria’s use of the word “resistance” is questionable. The term almost certainly refers to hezbollah, not to a threat of Syrian attack.