If US President George W. Bush accepts the recommendations the Iraq Study Group placed on his desk Wednesday, it will constitute a dramatic turnaround in US Mideast policy, and it won't be long before Israeli representatives find themselves sitting in a gilded room across from representatives of their neighbors for a Madrid-style peace conference. This should come as no real surprise, since one of the two heads of the Iraq Study Group was former secretary of state James Baker, the same Baker who pushed Israel and its neighbors into the Madrid conference in 1991.
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Fifteen years later, after the Madrid diplomatic process was ditched in favor of concentrating on the Palestinian track in the hope that solving this problem would be the key to everything else, Baker is back with recommendations for a regional conference. Its Madrid redux.
It's not as if one could read the study and come away with the impression that Baker and his co-chair, Lee Hamilton, feel that the Palestinian track is unimportant, but rather that they view it as part of an integrated whole. Indeed, the entire report sees the interaction of different pieces in the Middle East puzzle. Everything impacts on everything else, although in the view of the report's authors, the Arab-Israeli conflict, of course, impacts more than anything else.
"The United States cannot achieve its goals in the Middle East unless it deals directly with the Arab-Israeli conflict and regional instability," the report reads.
The panel concluded the US needs a sustained commitment to a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace on all fronts, and that these efforts "should include - as soon as possible - the unconditional calling and holding of meetings, under the auspices of the United States or the Quartet, between Israel and Lebanon and Syria on the one hand, and Israel and Palestinians (who acknowledge Israel's right to exist) on the other. The purpose of these meetings would be to negotiate peace as was done at the Madrid Conference in 1991, and on two separate tracks - one Syrian/Lebanese, and the other Palestinian."
If Israeli officials were concerned in recent weeks that the Iraq Study Group would recommend paying for US engagement with Syria in Israeli currency, then their fears were realized, and in spades.
Among the groups' recommendations, as expected, was for the US to begin diplomatic engagement with Syria and Iran in order to stabilize the region.
This was widely expected, and it was also expected that both the Syrians and Iranians would demand a price. In evaluating the Syrian payment, the assessments in Jerusalem were that Syria's top three priorities, in descending order of importance, were calling off the international tribunal on the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, regaining a strong foothold in Lebanon, and getting back the Golan Heights.
The Baker-Hamilton group made clear that while Damascus could forget about achieving their first two objectives through engagement with the US, the third - regaining he Golan - was no pipe dream.
A negotiated peace, the report made clear, would not lead to Syria's return to Lebanon or enable it to wiggle out of the Hariri investigation, but it could lead to regaining the Golan.
"In the context of a full and secure peace agreement, the Israelis should return the Golan Heights, with a US security guarantee for Israel that could include an international force on the border, including US troops if requested by both parties," the report said.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, in his address at Sde Boker last week, seemed to be trying to preempt the Baker-Hamilton group report, unfolding his vision of peace with the Palestinians, a vision not that different from that which had been articulated in Washington. Olmert focused on the Palestinians, and did not even mention - not one word - the Syrians.
A little more then a week later, the Iraqi Study Group comes and reshuffles the deck, saying that while the Palestinian track is important, and needs sustained American involvement, so do the Syrian and Lebanese tracks.
That Olmert completely ignored the Syrians in his Sde Boker talk indicated one of two possibilities: either he did not know how much emphasis the Baker group would place on the Syrian track and the wider regional interconnection, something that strains credulity; or that he had reason to believe that at least in regards to dealing with the Iranians and Syrians, that segment of Iraq Study Group will be unceremoniously rejected by Bush.