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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Former US House of Representatives Speaker Tip O'Neill is credited for saying that "all politics is local" and former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was quoted as saying that "Israel had no foreign policy, only domestic politics." The two American luminaries delivered those quotations decades ago, but they could have just as easily been made over the past few days, when Syria has reemerged as a hot item on the Israeli political agenda.
First Defense Minister Amir Peretz said in a speech last week that "one of Israel's goals after the war in Lebanon should be to create conditions that would permit future negotiations with Syria." Then Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni appointed her predecessor's chief of staff, Yaakov Dayan, to write a position paper on Israel's relationship with Syria.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert criticized Peretz in Sunday's cabinet meeting, saying that "there was no need to warn us every day against a war with Syria or on the other hand to immediately [after the war] extend a hand to negotiate with them." Olmert's comment did not stop Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter from declaring to Army Radio the following day that if negotiations with Syria could bring real peace, he would support relinquishing the Golan Heights. Olmert reacted to Dichter by calling Syria "the most aggressive member of the axis of evil."
Based on such quotes, one could think that a peace deal with Syria was a realistic option that is on Israel's agenda. But Syrian president Bashar Assad gave no such indication last week when in a belligerent address, he called for continuing the armed struggle against Israel and declared victory for Hizbullah.
Nothing Assad said could be interpreted as a signal of hidden love for Zion. But just as Assad's statement was intended to boost his popularity with a Syrian audience, so were the comments and moves by Israeli politicians intended solely for domestic consumption.
Peretz's statement was made immediately after the war ended when he was under pressure inside his Labor Party, where his moves as defense minister have likely cost him the support of Israeli Arabs and his basis of support in the party's left flank. Calling for negotiations with Syria distinguished Labor from Kadima, which backs unilateral moves instead of negotiations and opposes talks with Syria.
Livni's appointment of a point man on Syria had more to do with internal politics in the Foreign Ministry than geopolitical maneuvering. The appointment also enabled Livni to appear involved in Israeli diplomacy while Olmert is trying to marginalize her role on any serious issue of Israeli foreign policy.
Some suspected that Dichter's comments were intended as a trial balloon for Olmert, much like Olmert's comments about withdrawing unilaterally from the Gaza Strip became Ariel Sharon's policy soon after. Others theorized that Dichter was presenting himself as an alternative to Olmert in Kadima at a time when there is nostalgia for security men in Israeli politics.
But Dichter is not the kind of politician who joins conspiracies or makes statements just to get a headline in the paper. The opinion he expressed on negotiations was just his opinion and there is nothing to read into it.
"This has been his opinion for a long time and only now was he asked about it," Dichter's spokesman said. "There are no trial balloons with Avi Dichter. With him, what you see is what you get."
If only things were so simple with Olmert. The prime minister calculates every word he says, and many of his remarks are intended to be taken different ways by different people.
The statements Olmert made about Syria were intended to take the mistakes of Lebanon and his lack of a post-disengagement agenda off the top headlines of the news. Judging by the nightly news on Monday, he did not succeed.
So no matter what Bashar Assad says, expect Israeli politicians to continue talking about Syria.