Analysis: A tactical, not strategic, change

The US decision to sit with Iran and Syria is far from a full acceptance of the Baker-Hamilton report.

Rice stern 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
Rice stern 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
The US decision to take part in a regional conference on Iraq that will include Iran and Syria did not send diplomatic officials in Jerusalem scrambling to recalibrate Israel's diplomatic policies to deal with a seismic shift in US Middle East policy, for the simple reason that Jerusalem does not feel this represents a seismic shift in US regional policy. A tactical shift in how to deal with Iraq? Yes. But a strategic regional shift? Not at all. The first thing Israeli and US officials stressed Wednesday, following US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's announcement of the decision, was that the conference will be an international gathering, and will not constitute direct bilateral talks between the US and either Iran or Syria. In this sense, the decision was far from a full acceptance of the Baker-Hamilton bipartisan report on Iraq that called for direct US engagement with Syria and Iran. Another element stressed in Jerusalem was the US domestic political context in which the decision was made. In this regard, the decision was viewed as a tactical step taken by President George W. Bush to give the Democratic Congress something in return for not stopping his move to send another 21,500 troops to Iraq, and to show Congress and the American public that he is not deaf to their concerns and demands. And in the localized context of Iraq, this is seen as a tactical move to try and do something that could perhaps be a positive step toward stabilizing the worsening situation there. There is also no sense in Jerusalem that the decision to engage Syria and Iran on Iraq constitutes an American green light for Israel to begin actively exploring various diplomatic feelers Damascus has put out in recent months. A perception has been created among observers in recent weeks that the US is some nefarious force holding Israel back from what it truly wants to do - negotiate with the Syrians. According to this perception, if the US administration would just loosen its grip on Israel, then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert would jump at the chance to negotiate - directly or through intermediaries - with Syrian President Bashar Assad. And now that the US will be sitting with Damascus around the same table, according to this logic, Israel will either start negotiating with Syria of its own volition, or be pushed into doing so by a US administration that will overnight fall head-over-heels for Assad. The main problem with this argument is that it assumes Israel genuinely wants to engage at this time with Assad, and it would do so only if the US concurred. But there has been nothing in recent statements made by Olmert or Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni to support this assumption. On the contrary, at a press conference last week, Olmert made it clear what he thought about negotiations at this time with Assad. "We are interested in peace, not in the 'industry of peace‚'" he said. "We are interested in peace, not in the process of peace. We are interested in peace with Syria, not in helping Syria pretend that it is now a peace-loving country and therefore it has to be released of all the efforts made by the international community to establish an international tribunal to inquire [into] the assassination of the former prime minister of Lebanon and of the violent Syrian involvement with Hizbullah in Lebanon." Olmert said if the Syrians were really interested in genuine peace, they wouldn't be assisting Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hizbullah. "How can you try to make [peace], sit and negotiate with someone who at the same time is preparing your assassination from the backside?" he asked. Rice and other top administration officials have uttered similar sentiments in recent months, making it hard to believe that a few US meetings at an international parley on Iraq that also includes Syrian and Iranian delegations will make this attitude - predicated on real Syrian actions - just melt away.