(photo credit: AP)
How ironic that on the weekend that marked the 40th anniversary of the capture of the Golan Heights in the Six Day War, Israel's impotence in dealing with the Syrians has been highlighted in such an embarrassing fashion.
A report in Friday's Yediot Aharonot that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert obtained President George W. Bush's agreement nearly two months ago to quietly engage with the Assad regime and has since been trying, through German and Turkish channels, to elicit a response to his offer to give Syria the Golan in return for full peace arrangements and for Syria cutting itself off from Iran and Hamas, doesn't say much for Israel's bargaining powers.
Bush's "green light" shouldn't be interpreted as US approval of Israeli-Syrian talks. Both the official and unofficial position of the US administration is that such negotiations have very little chance of reaching any results, and that their breakdown will only make matters worse.
Bashar Assad is high on the American black list for allowing jihadis into Iraq to attack US forces, arming Hizbullah, fomenting unrest in Lebanon, and harboring Hamas and other terror organizations. The US has been very active in setting up the UN tribunal to investigate the murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, which is expected to point the blame at Assad's closest circle.
It is not interested in offering the Syrian president negotiations with Israel as a way out of his troubles. But since it does not believe that the current Israeli government has the political credibility necessary to push through a deal with Syria, that doesn't realty matter anyway.
The American attitude toward Israel's dealings with Syria reflects the downturn in the cachet Israel enjoyed in Washington before last summer's Lebanon war. At the outset of the war, Israel was regarded as the front-line of the West's war against radical Islam and was given carte blanche to go after Hizbullah. Having failed to do so in a satisfactory manner, Israel's leadership is now seen as too weak to deliver a peace treaty with Syria and its military as too disorganized to deal a conclusive blow to its enemies.
While there has been near-panic emanating from Israeli official circles in the last few weeks over the possibility of war with Syria this summer, the situation is being observed with equanimity by the Americans. They see Assad as a weakened leader, with little power to do more than support terrorist proxies, and they believe that he can be left to stew in his own juice.
The administration's priorities in the Middle East are stabilizing Iraq, confronting Iran, ensuring the survival of the Saniora government in Lebanon and restarting some kind of process between Israel and an Abu Mazen-led Palestinian Authority. Negotiations between Israel and Syria don't even make the bottom of the list.
The return of most of the Golan to Damascus is the only realistic outcome of an Israeli-Syrian deal, and Bush has no interest in rewarding Assad for his help to the US's enemies. So the administration is perfectly happy for now to the see the Heights remain in Israeli hands.
Still, if the pressure being placed on the cabinet by the chiefs of the IDF and the intelligence services, backed up by constant leaks to the press, is such that the government feels it has to extend feelers toward Assad, then the US administration is prepared to let that happen. American officials familiar with Israeli politics appreciate the fact that the government also has to counter-leak.
Nonetheless, for Bush and Olmert's next meeting, in Washington in two weeks, Syria remains firmly off the agenda. â€¢