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(photo credit: AP)
When the White House announced last week that US President George W. Bush was going to Jordan on Wednesday to meet Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Malki, the press immediately began speculating about a three-way "summit" between Bush, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas.
Well, the summit in Jordan didn't materialize; Bush didn't come on a surprise visit here either; and in the end, all that emerged was a rather perfunctory stopover by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who met Abbas in Jericho and Olmert in Jerusalem. Even a Rice-Olmert-Abbas parley, also discussed breathlessly in the media, didn't take place.
Which all goes to show that - despite what we sometimes think - it's not always about us.
Despite the announcement of a Gaza cease-fire Saturday night, and despite the public overtures Olmert made to the Palestinians in his Sde Boker speech on Monday, the Americans, according to US officials, were not bowled over by a "new momentum" that needed to be translated immediately into high-level, high-profile meetings.
True, they were watching carefully; they were pleased by the developments. But they were not going to have Bush put his prestige on the line at another Israeli-Palestinian summit. Been there, done that, and been burned - just think back to the Bush, Abbas, prime minister Ariel Sharon, King Abdullah summit in Aqaba in 2003.
"There is cautious optimism," a US official said. "But there is no sense of urgency; nothing has been created yet. We need a longer period to judge where things are headed."
Even the visit of Deputy National Security Adviser Elliott Abrams this week was not, despite the spin his trip received in parts of the press, connected to the recent events here. It was, rather, another of the regular - call them maintenance - visits - which he makes to the region. No high drama there.
One US official, weary of all the speculation of a high-level trilateral meeting, said that something "really dramatic" would have to take place for the US to change its focus, a focus which - because of the bloodbath that is Baghdad - is now preponderantly on Iraq.
"The US Administration is so gripped on what is going on in Iraq, that when Bush is in Jordan he will be looking East, not West," the official said.
THAT THE US is looking toward Iraq, not necessarily Israel, is also something Israelis would do well to keep in mind when the Iraq Study Group presents its non-binding recommendations to Bush on Wednesday. The much-anticipated report, put together by a bi-partisan committee chaired by former (Republican) secretary of state James Baker and former (Democrat) congressman Lee Hamilton is widely expected to recommend that - in the framework of improving the situation in Iraq - Washington re-engage with Syria and Iran.
American reengagement with Syria automatically sets alarm bells ringing for many Israelis who believe that this would inevitably translate into US pressure on Jerusalem to enter into negotiations with Syrian President Bashar Assad - something Assad has expressed interest in - beginning a process that would lead eventually to a withdrawal from the Golan. The concern is that the US will want to get Syrian help in extricating itself from Iraq, and to do that would push Jerusalem into paying for the bargain with Israeli currency.
But a huge leap is needed to get from Washington talking to Damascus, to Jerusalem giving up Katzrin.
First, listen to what National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, who undoubtedly is aware of the direction the Iraqi Study Group is going with its recommendations, had to say this week about Israeli negotiations with Syria.
At a press briefing, Hadley - in Latvia with Bush - was asked a question whose premise was that progress on an Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Syrian track would lead to greater stability in Iraq and the Mideast.
Hadley said that it was in the interest of the region to help the Iraqis stabilize their situation, and he said that - "separately and apart" - it was a good thing for US policy and for the parties involved for Israel and the Palestinians to "stand down their conflict and move in the direction of a more permanent peace."
But these efforts, he said, were being confounded "by countries like Iran and Syria, and those that they support, in terms of Hizbullah and Hamas, that have a very different agenda."
Asked again specifically about the importance of negotiations between Israel and Syria, Hadley said, "Here is Syria, which is clearly putting pressure on the Lebanese democracy, is a supporter of terror, is both provisioning and supporting Hizbullah and facilitating Iran in its efforts to support Hizbullah, is supporting the activities of Hamas. This is not a Syria that is on an agenda to bring peace and stability to the region, and I think Prime Minister Olmert said, under those circumstances, with that kind of Syrian policy, how can you talk about negotiating on the Golan Heights? Seems to me that's a sensible position."
His remarks don't exactly sound like they are coming from an administration ready to dangle Israel out as the carrot in order to re-engage with Syria. Furthermore, according to assessments reaching Jerusalem, the US is not pinning a great deal of hope on Syria's ability to help it extricate itself from Iraq.
"How much the Syrians are able to have an influence on Iraq is not clear," one official said, adding that the Americans would be unlikely to want to pay the Syrians a high price, not knowing if it would be at all effective. "The Syrians want to break out of their isolation, and are counting on the Iraqi card. They are trying to present themselves as an important player in the Iraqi equation, but it seems like the perception they are trying to create is different than the reality."
GRANTED, THE Syrians share a long and porous border with Iraq that is regularly breached, providing the anti-American forces there with men and materiel. And the US would like to hear a change in Syria's rhetoric exhorting against the US occupation in Iraq. But, unlike Saudi Arabia or Iran, each of which could possibly have a restraining impact on the Sunni and Shi'ite factions on the brink of civil war in Iraq, Assad has no such pull.
According to these assessments, if the Americans were to opt for a policy of engagement with the Syrians, Assad would have three main priorities, first among them preserving his regime. According to this view, Assad is petrified that the international tribunal into the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri will impact his regime's longevity. His feeling is that if the tribunal indicts some of his top advisers, his position in Syria could be seriously weakened and his downfall ultimately a probability.
His second main interest is Lebanon, and maintaining a dominant influence in Lebanese affairs. This is a huge obstacle in developing relations with the US, because it is doubtful that Washington would be willing to sacrifice Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora and the democratic movement there on the off-chance that Assad may be able to help out in Iraq.
And his third interest, after regime change and Lebanon, is to get back the Golan Heights.
Although Israeli officials say that this is not his top priority, the concern in Jerusalem is that this could move up his ladder simply because achieving either of his other two objectives - getting the US to squash the international tribunal on Hariri or endorse Syrian involvement in Lebanon - are completely unrealistic.
Which means, according to Israeli governmental sources, that what is desperately needed at this time - and something that has not yet taken place - is a high-level strategic dialogue and agreement between the US and Israel over policy towards Syria.
Israel and the US need to come to an agreement, the official said, over what price it may be worth paying to pull Syria out of Iran's immediate orbit, and to lure it away from supporting extremists like Hamas and Hizbullah.
They also have to discuss another ominous question, the official added, and that is whether Damascus would end its support for terrorist organizations and extremist Islamic elements in the region even if - someday - it did indeed get back the Golan. And this type of serious strategic discussion, the sources bewailed, has not even begun.
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