Analysis: Bush wondering whether PM knows what he's doing

President let the Syrian cat out of the bag last week, when he spoke warily of the 'decision made' by Olmert.

bush olmert 224.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
bush olmert 224.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
President Bush nearly gave the game away last week. In his White House interview with this and three other Israeli journalists, when he was asked about American reluctance to see Israel legitimating Syria by opening peace talks with Damascus, Bush said he had "never told [Prime Minister] Olmert one thing or another about what to do with his security. That's not what friends do." But then Bush added that Olmert had already made a decision to go ahead with the talks, only to hurriedly correct himself when he realized we weren't actually supposed to know that yet. He said, as this less than fluent but word-for-word official White House transcript of the conversation confirms: "I expect an explanation, but I'm - he made a decision that he made - or no decisions have been made, except the idea of trying to get some dialogue moving, which is - and I know him well, and know that he is as concerned about Israeli security as any other person that's ever been the prime minister of Israel. And so I presume the decision is made." Beyond the president's letting the cat out of the bag and then quickly trying to stuff it back in, however, Bush made some telling comments about Syria that appear particularly resonant now that the secret is, indeed, out and everybody knows that formal indirect negotiations are under way. For while the White House on Wednesday said it did not object to Israel's opening of the indirect Damascus track, The New York Times on Thursday quoted an administration official as calling it "a slap in the face." And the president's own remarks in the Oval Office to us last week seem to indicate a high degree of concern, if not outright dismay, at Olmert's decision to seek an accord with a determinedly unreformed Bashar Assad - a sense of "I hope he knows what he's doing..." For a start, Bush made crystal clear that he had no intention whatsoever of warming his ties to Syria so long as Damascus is sponsoring terrorism, enabling the arming of Hizbullah and making "life miserable for the young democracy in Iraq." Syria would first have to change course, he indicated, for America to rethink: "It's easy to get our attention," he said dryly. Syria simply had to become "a constructive force, a positive force, a force for peace - not a force that continually uses these extremist groups to destabilize the neighborhood." Still, the president acknowledged, it was easy for the US to remain aloof, "separated from Syria by an ocean." Israel's politicians, he allowed, have "got to come up with their own vision of security." But sounding like a disapproving uncle, he cautioned starkly, "My hope, of course, is that a decision is made with Israel's interests at heart... One of the things I try to do is think strategically, and the biggest long-term threat to peace in the Middle East is Iran. The Iranian connection with Syria is very troubling for not only the United States, but Israel, as well as other Arab nations. And anything done should... keep that strategic vision in mind." Of course, he concluded more gently, "Of all the people who understand the existential threat that the Iranians pose, it's the Israelis." The word is that Bush, to put it mildly, was not easily persuaded by Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak of the virtues of the Syria-Turkey-Israel track, and is highly dubious about the possibility of drawing Damascus out of Teheran's orbit. But for all the similar skepticism among Israeli politicians, about the talks themselves and the timing of Wednesday's announcement - deflecting attention from Olmert's mounting corruption problems - the fact is that the prime minister's Syria gambit is widely supported in the defense establishment. Several very senior security officials have privately insisted to me in recent months that the potential benefits of an accommodation - under which Syria would evict the terror HQs it hosts in its capital, cease facilitating the transfer of weapons to Hizbullah and, chiefly, render Iran increasingly isolated - outweigh the risks of the negotiations failing. Already, it is now said, the fact that the channel was secretly open helped reduce the danger of escalation following Israel's strike on Syria's nuclear reactor last September and the killing of Hizbullah terror chief Imad Mughniyeh in Damascus in February. Snap opinion polls confirm the extent of public misgivings about the negotiations - exacerbated by the utter distrust in Olmert and his motives - and show overwhelming opposition to ceding the Golan. Of course, public opinion also initially opposed relinquishing the Sinai to Egypt in the 1970s - but that was a buffer zone, rather than a geostrategic ridge from which Israel has been acutely vulnerable to attack. In the 1970s, what it took to turn around public sentiment was an extraordinary flying visit and address in the Knesset by an Egyptian president, Anwar Sadat, who spoke unprecedentedly and persuasively of a heartfelt desire for peace. Today, an unlikely replication of that journey to Jerusalem, by Bashar Assad, would seem to be a necessary, though not in itself sufficient, step to convince the Israeli public, battered by its enemies and deeply mistrustful of its leaders, that a new era of reconciliation could be dawning.