in the U.S. Senate
An Israeli-Syrian treaty has the potential to produce beneficial results for the peace process in the entire region: stopping Syrian support for Hamas, which would promote successful Israeli-Palestinian negotiations; ending Syria's destabilization of Lebanon, including its backing of Hezbollah; and, perhaps most important, driving a wedge between Syria and Iran.
Prospects have improved since President Bush has now taken a personal hand in Mideast issues by participating in Annapolis and traveling to the region. Over reported Iranian objections, Syria was represented at Annapolis. Two weeks ago in Damascus, President Basher al Assad told U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D., R.I.) and me that Annapolis changed his perspective and that he is now optimistic about prospects for a Syrian-Israeli pact.
In the Byzantine world of Mideast politics, it is difficult to know what the principals have in mind even when listening to their statements and probing their nuances. A year ago, in my conversations with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Assad, both used words expressing an interest in a peace treaty, but their music contained little enthusiasm. Two weeks ago, in meetings with Kennedy and me, both national leaders appeared much more interested in pursuing a dialogue. That attitude was confirmed by the New Year's Day story in Al-Hayat, the London-based Arabic daily, that said back-channel negotiations between Israel and Syria, mediated by Turkey, are being pursued.
The conventional wisdom is, the parties were very serious when they came close to a 1995 deal, which was shattered by the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Again in 2000, they almost reached an agreement brokered by President Bill Clinton until President Hafez al Assad reportedly backed away because a treaty might have derailed his son's succession to the Syrian presidency.
Only Israel can decide for itself if giving up the Golan Heights is in its national interest. Obviously, the security concerns are much different today than in 1967 since wars are now dominated by rockets. In our December meeting, Israeli President Shimon Peres said Syria could have the Golan or Lebanon, but not both. On Jan. 1, the Jerusalem Post outlined what Israel wants, quoting Olmert: "There will not be peace with Syria if Syria is connected to Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran, and continues to engage in the actions it is engaging. That is perfectly clear. It's either - or."
The clear-cut emergence of Iran as the dominant problem in the region, if not the world, makes it more important than ever that all possible steps be taken to weaken Iran. A wedge between Syria and Iran would be an important step in that direction.
With the Democrats in control of Congress, Bush has limited prospects for domestic victories in 2008. That may be why he reversed course, supported Annapolis, and is trying his hand at Mideast mediating. An Israeli-Syrian agreement could be the catalyst to bring all the moving parts together to assist in resolving the complex Mideast puzzles.
Perhaps Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice may be listening to the advocates of dialogue and heeding the 2,400-year-old advice of Sun-Tzu, the Chinese philosopher, who said to keep your friends close and your enemies closer, and Moshe Dayan, former Israeli defense minister, who said you make peace with your enemies, not your friends. Bush's diplomatic successes with North Korea and Libya may encourage him to undertake direct negotiations with Syria and perhaps, ultimately, even with Iran.