Analysis: When in doubt, turn to Syria

Analysis When in doubt,

Assad and Ahmedinejad chat 248.88 (photo credit: )
Assad and Ahmedinejad chat 248.88
(photo credit: )
The last time Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu found himself differing with a US president amid faltering talks with Palestinians, he tacked towards Syria. Opening up discreet talks with Damascus, he positioned himself as a would-be peacemaker looking for a new avenue for progress. This week Netanyahu, in his second incarnation as premier, again visited a White House he has been at odds with and one that is trying desperately to make progress with the Palestinians even as the prospects for peace worsen. Yet Israeli and American officials have insisted that the visit was a positive one, despite intense media speculation that it was a disaster. While literally stepping onto his plane in Washington Tuesday morning, Netanyahu told reporters, "The importance of the visit will become clear in the future." That plane took him from America to France, where the PM then met with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, the same head of state planning to host Syrian President Bashar Assad on Thursday. Late Wednesday it emerged that Netanyahu had told Sarkozy that he would be happy to launch peace talks with Syria any time, anywhere, without preconditions. Channel 1 also reported that Netanyahu had sent a message to Assad via Sarkozy. The move follows a direct appeal to Assad by President Shimon Peres Tuesday while addressing the parliament in Brazil. "I call from here to President Assad: Come enter direct negotiations with us immediately. With no mediations, with no preconditions, with no levels, and with no delay," he urged. Assad, for his part, while at a conference of Arab political parties Wednesday was quoted by official state media as saying, "We do not put forward conditions on making peace," though he also said "we do have rights that we will not renounce" and that "resistance [to Israeli control of the Golan Heights] forms the core of our policy, both in the past and in the future." Still, the suggestion that Syria might be willing to hold peace talks without preconditions could create an opening for the sides to resume at least the indirect contacts coordinated through Turkey until Israel's actions against Hamas in Gaza last winter. In the meantime Israel's relationship with Turkey has faltered, with Jerusalem wary of any role for Ankara. France, though, could serve as a replacement for any renewed diplomacy. "Assad and Netanyahu each for their own reasons want to have balls up in the air," said Middle East expert Aaron David Miller of the possibility that the two leaders wanted to signal the potential for talks between their countries. But he contrasted their interest in "testing the possibility that Syrian-Israeli negotiations and an agreement are possible" with actual movement toward peace. Miller, author of The Much Too Promised Land, pointed to secret talks as the most productive way to make real progress and questioned whether the public motions were substantive. "I don't think this front channel noise means there's a back channel discussion underway," he said. But by publicly opening to Syria, he said it allowed Netanyahu to demonstrate, "I'm a capable leader. I have options. The Israeli-Palestinian game is not the only game in town, and I can play with the big boys" on the international stage. That could help him in Europe and also among the Americans, with whom he's eager to burnish his image. At the same time, Miller noted that such a posture also gave Netanyahu a genuine opportunity to explore whether any progress could be made with Syria. The ball now goes to Syria's court, as Assad plays in France on Thursday.