Iran General NewsAt Mideast talks, U.S. and Israel seek to isolate...

At Mideast talks, U.S. and Israel seek to isolate Iran by wooing Syria


Wall Street Journal: The Bush administration for years rejected the notion that progress towards Arab-Israeli peace could ease its wider woes in the Middle East. Next week, President Bush kicks off talks with just such an aim. The Wall Street Journal



The Bush administration for years rejected the notion that progress towards Arab-Israeli peace could ease its wider woes in the Middle East. Next week, President Bush kicks off talks with just such an aim.

The stated goal of Mr. Bush’s first serious stab at Middle East peacemaking is to revive negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians to end the region’s most enduring conflict. But administration officials hope progress in talks scheduled to begin Tuesday in Annapolis, Md., also curries favor with skeptical Sunni Arab leaders, whom the U.S. needs to check Iran’s growing regional clout.

Underscoring that effort, the Bush administration is even courting a long-time pariah, Syria. Syria’s bitter enemy, Israel, is going even further, indicating that its arms are open wide to Damascus. Talks with Syria could go some way in weakening Tehran’s strongest alliance in the region.

“This is one of those moments in history where the Syrians have been given an opportunity to jump,” a senior Israeli official said this past week. “If they do jump, they will be embraced.”

On Friday, Syrian officials suggested they would attend, possibly at the level of Damascus’s foreign minister, Walid Moallem. They said the Arab League had sent word to Washington that they wanted the issue of Syria’s dispute with Israel over the Golan Heights region directly addressed in Annapolis, and that they were receiving positive responses.

The stakes are high for Mr. Bush, who has invited representatives from more than four dozen governments and organizations to participate. With a war in Iraq that has badly damaged U.S. prestige and seems certain to outlast Mr. Bush’s term in office, the administration increasingly sought another, less tarnished, Middle East legacy — even at the risk of reversing itself and alienating some conservatives.

“The point is that right now we’ve invested the Secretary of State’s time in something I don’t think is central to our interests,” said David Wurmser, who until earlier this year served as Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief Middle East advisor, at a Washington conference Tuesday. “We need to change the subject into something that we can handle and we can defeat Iran with.”

The last serious effort at reaching a permanent accord came under President Clinton, who, with only about six months left in his presidency, tried to broker a deal at Camp David. The violence that began amid the failure of those talks has tempered ambitions since. But analysts note the current round of bargaining between the two sides includes an important feature Mr. Clinton’s effort lacked: face-to-face meetings between the opposing leaders.

Saudi Arabia also will be closely watched in Annapolis. It signaled Friday it would send its foreign minister, Saud al Faisal, to the talks. Such a high-level of representation would mark a watershed in Saudi Arabia’s posture toward Israel, though the Saudis remain deeply skeptical of the U.S. and Israeli commitment to peace.

At the effort’s core, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas haven’t yet agreed on a shared statement about which issues they are trying to settle, with only days remaining. But Washington, Israel and the Palestinians share a fresh incentive for progress: the rising power of the Islamist group Hamas and its main backer, Iran.

The Islamist movement won Palestinian parliamentary elections last year, then violently overran the Gaza Strip in June. That threatens Mr. Abbas and his western-leaning Fatah movement, which are fighting to hold on to political power in the West Bank. The Gaza rout raised fresh alarms among Israelis about the rise of Iranian-backed groups on its borders. Israelis also worry about Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed group consolidating political power to the north in Lebanon after an inconclusive summer war with the guerrilla group last year that Israelis viewed as disastrous for their deterrence.

Many difficult issues remain. For Israelis, the thorniest is dividing Jerusalem, which both sides consider to be their capital, and control over its holy sites. Palestinians are most focused on the status of refugees from 1948 and their descendants, whose “right of return” to Israel has been a staple of Palestinian nationalist rhetoric for six decades. The borders of a future Palestinian state, along with sharing water, also will be at the center of any resolution.

Analysts say the difficulties of producing a substantive joint declaration demonstrate the need for the U.S., especially Mr. Bush, to exert a significant amount of commitment. “He is going to have to get personally involved and personally invested in ways that he’s been reluctant to do thus far,” says Bruce Riedel, who wrote the 2001 speech in which Mr. Bush declared support for a Palestinian state. Mr. Riedel, a Middle East adviser to several presidents and former Central Intelligence Agency official in the region, says Arab leaders “will need to hear real progress” from Mr. Bush himself.

Skepticism in the Arab world was hammered home Friday at an Arab League meeting in Cairo. Mr. al Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, indicated his kingdom was cautious until the Cairo confab. “If it weren’t for the Arab consensus to go to the meeting, we wouldn’t have gone,” he told reporters.

The linchpin of the regional strategy may be its weakest point. Both Israeli and Palestinian leaders face challenges at home that could interfere with their ability to make any real progress. For one, it’s unclear how much of Palestinian society Mr. Abbas really represents. His Fatah movement lost elections to Hamas last year, before losing Gaza this summer. Hamas representatives haven’t been invited and remain cast in international isolation.

Mr. Olmert, meanwhile, faces low public-approval numbers and a coalition government that depends upon far-right parties that threaten to bring him down if he even discusses some key issues, such as control of Jerusalem.

The invitation to Syria is the latest move in a debate between the U.S. and Israel. The White House has long viewed Syria as a principal impediment to stability and peace, due to its support of extremist groups operating in the Palestinian territories, Lebanon and Iraq.

Distrust in some Washington quarters toward Syrian President Bashar Assad has grown in recent weeks, following a September Israeli missile strike inside Syria. U.S. officials say the Israeli air force destroyed a nascent Syrian nuclear reactor located along the Euphrates River, a charge Damascus denies. That follows what has been a harder recent line from the White House, which has sought to pressure Syria from supporting such groups as Hezbollah and Hamas, as well as facilitating the travel of foreign fighters into Iraq. The administration also has pushed a United Nations-led investigation into the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, a crime initial U.N. reports have tied to the Syrian government.

But there are growing signs the White House may be moving to do something it’s uniformly dismissed in the past: facilitate direct negotiations between Israel and Syria over the disputed Golan Heights. In recent days, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other senior officials have said the U.S. wouldn’t object to Syria’s raising Golan at Annapolis.

Meanwhile, Israel has pursued a peace dialogue with Damascus, eager to calm tensions on its northeastern border and quash strong Syrian support for Palestinian extremist groups. Mr. Olmert has used Turkish intermediaries to explore options with the Syrians, according to Israeli officials. Retired Israeli diplomats also have held unofficial talks with a confidante of Mr. Assad’s over the past few years in an effort to find a formula to solve the Golan dispute.

Many Israeli officials say Washington and Jerusalem should seek to wean Syria away from its growing alliance with Iran. They see the U.S.’s punitive actions against Damascus as driving President Assad further into the Iranian camp.

“Maybe it’s time to employ the carrot to remove [Syria”> from the axis of evil,” the deputy chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, Maj. Gen. Moshe Kaplinsky, said in Washington last month. This will “prevent the Iranian influence,” he said.

A number of U.S. officials, particularly in the White House, have voiced reservations about engaging the Syrians. They particularly worry that any talks with Damascus could hurt Lebanon, which Syria occupied for more then 30 years before withdrawing in 2005 after the Hariri murder. The belief is that Syria will demand renewed political influence inside Lebanon in return for peace with Israel.

U.S. officials particularly believe Damascus is playing a central role in the current political standoff in Beirut, where governing and opposition groups have been unable to elect a new president for weeks. Lebanon’s president Friday declared a state of emergency , arguing the additional security was needed to ward off a civil war. (Please see related article.)

“We wouldn’t have the problems we see today in Lebanon if Syria were deciding to take a different role. Plain and simple,” Assistant Secretary of State David Welch told a Senate hearing earlier this month.

At the same time, U.S. officials, including Iraq commander Gen. David Petraeus, have been praising Damascus for what they say has been its “robust” effort recently to cut off the flow of foreign fighters crossing into Iraq. Some Syria analysts say there are indications that President Assad has taken steps to limit the movements of militant leaders based in Damascus, such as Hamas’s political head, Khaled Mashal.

A Syrian diplomat said his government has significantly increased the policing of its borders into Iraq, including developing more watchtowers and border patrols. The Syrian government also allowed foreign diplomats, including a U.S. representative, to monitor its border operations during a tour earlier this month.

— Mariam Fam from Cairo contributed to this article.

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