With the US Iraq Study Group expected to recommend on Wednesday that the US diplomatically engage Syria and Iran, Israeli government sources differ widely about the impact this type of engagement might have on Israel. While a senior defense official said US talks with Iran would lead to a slippery slope that would eventually leave Israel alone facing the Iranian nuclear threat, other government officials indicated that US-Iranian talks were needed to stabilize the region since Iran was "calling the shots" everywhere from Lebanon to Gaza.
'US won't order a preemptive Iran strike'
The long-awaited report by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, headed by former secretary of state James Baker and former congressman Lee Hamilton to make recommendations on US policy in Iraq, is to be presented to US President George W. Bush on Wednesday.
Diplomatic officials said that Israel has not seen a sneak preview of the report, and has not set up any teams to deal with the findings.
Sources in the Prime Minister's Office said that Bush told Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on his visit to Washington last month not to expect any "drastic changes" as a result of the report.
Bush assured Olmert that the US was looking for new ways to deal with the Iraqi issue, and that this was the main issue that would be dealt with in the non-binding report.
"The report deals with American policy," an official in the Prime Minister's Office said.
"Obviously we will look at it carefully to see how it impacts on us, but the prime minister does not expect any far reaching conclusions." The official said the feeling Israel has received from the White House was "that there would be no drastic changes from current policy" as a result of the report.
Likewise, the assessment in the Foreign Ministry is that the report would deal primarily with US policy in Iraq, and that "is not our business." No work-groups have been set up in the ministry to deal with the issue.
One Foreign Ministry official, who said there was no "tension" in Jerusalem over the report, said that while the US might want to engage the Syrians, the price that the Syrians were likely to ask in return - an end to the tribunal investigating the assassination of Rafik Hariri and a foothold in Lebanon - may well be too high for the US to pay.
According to Foreign Ministry assessments, the return of the Golan Heights is third on Syria's list of priorities.
The official also said there were questions whether even meeting these price tags would be enough to pull the Syrians out of the Iranian orbit, or whether Syrian President Bashar Assad was not too weak or dependent on Syria to break from Teheran completely.
Regarding the possibility that the Baker committee would recommend engaging the Iranians, a senior defense official who recently returned from a visit to the US said that the main thing on the Washington agenda right now was getting out of Iraq.
According to this official, the Baker committee would likely recommend talking to Iraq, and he then envisioned the following scenario unfolding: the Iranians would ask for a guarantee that the US not work to undermine the Iranian regime and for the US to turn a "blind eye" to their nuclear development program, in return for Iranian guarantees to help stabilize Iraq by damping down the Shi'ite violence, thereby enabling a US troop withdrawal.
What this meant for Israel, the official said, was that it would be left alone to deal with stopping the Iranian nuclear threat.
This scenario, however, is not shared by everyone. Some governmental officials have been heard advocating US-Iranian engagement, saying that Iran is the address for the current problems in Lebanon and Gaza, and that without dealing directly with Teheran, these problems simply won't be solved.
"There is one central player right now influencing on everything happening in the area," the official said, and "that is Iran. The root of the problems is the Iranian ability to manipulate Hizbullah and Hamas. The Iranians are calling the shots."
The official said that it was obvious that the price the Iranians would ask in return would be an end to attempts to stop their nuclear program.
Yaakov Katz contributed to this report.