Olmert Assad 298.88.
(photo credit: AP [archive])
What to make of this week's exchange of platitudes between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Syrian President Bashar Assad? Olmert was on his way to Ankara to promote peace with Syria just as Assad was holding a news conference with Croatian president President Stipe Mesic in Damascus.
By prior arrangement - in coordination with Turkish Premier Recep Tayyip Erdogan - Assad allowed that it would be "natural" for Syria and Israel to talk directly at some stage. "I compared the peace process to my friend the president of Croatia to the construction of a building - we first build the solid foundations and then we build the building, not vice versa," said Assad.
This was Olmert's cue: "What you don't do today in the Middle East, it's not certain you will be able to do tomorrow."
IT IS hard to credit either Olmert or Assad with pure intentions. Olmert is a lame-duck premier hounded from office by corruption charges, with little credibility and even less political capital to expend. Assad is a second-generation tyrant whose flawless, British-accented English belies his tight alliance with Iran and its proxy, Hizbullah.
We are not suggesting that Olmert should have stayed at home, or that Israeli diplomacy be put on hold until a new government is formed in 2009. Indeed, the Turks may have been trying to be helpful on another front: quietening the border between a bellicose, Hamas-controlled Gaza and Israel.
When it comes to bilateral relations between Israel and Syria, however, it is hard to lend credence to Olmert's efforts, especially with Israel in the midst of an election campaign.
WE WOULD have thought better of Olmert had he used his Ankara visit to tell the world what Jerusalem expects in any exchange of land for peace with Syria. Yes, a treaty is in Jerusalem's long-term interest, but not at any price. Olmert might have tactfully reminded his Turkish hosts that Syria lost the Golan Heights when, unprovoked, it attacked Israel in 1967.
He should have stressed that irrevocable strategic concessions by Israel on the Golan could only be justified - for the overwhelming majority of Israelis - in return for a true opening of genuine peaceful relations. Last April, though, Assad said that he would not "impose" normalization with Israel on the Syrian people. If Assad hasn't changed his mind about this, why isn't Olmert taking him to task?
Israelis have more questions about Syrian intentions than answers. For example: When will Assad respond to demands by the International Atomic Energy Agency to come clean about his nuclear weapons program? And when will Syria turn away from Iran and toward the West as part of a peace with Israel?
Why are cultural ties between Syria and Iran now closer than ever? The two states are even collaborating on a propaganda film about the Second Lebanon War.
More worryingly, Syria has reportedly been helping Iran evade international sanctions by allowing its territory to be used for trans-shipping missile components from Venezuela. Damascus has also funneled Iranian weapons to Hizbullah and anti-American fighters into neighboring Iraq. Moreover, a good deal of the cash that keeps Hamas afloat in Gaza - undermining Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas - is channeled via Hamas's Damascus headquarters.
No wonder Syria has been on the US list of state sponsors of terrorism for three decades.
Earlier this week, the editor of the London-based Asharq al-Awsat spelled out the obvious: If Syria really wanted to reorient its foreign policy toward the West, it would have to radically alter its relationship with Teheran, Hizbullah and Hamas.
Even Arab observers are interpreting Assad's chatter about direct talks with Israel as intended to mislead President-elect Barak Obama into believing Damascus genuinely seeks peace. If so, Assad is following a well-thumbed Syrian script - feigning moderation while stoking violence, unwilling to pay the price of peace yet anxious not to be ostracized for his intransigence.
Assad's approach is already paying off with some EU countries. Our question is: Why should Ehud Olmert be smoothing his path?