The road to Palestine leads through Damascus
If anyone in Israel thinks that negotiations with Mahmoud Abbas are direct, while with Hamas they are indirect, and that neither are related to the Syrian track - they should think again. Last week Bashar Assad met with Mahmoud Abbas at the Paris Summit for the Mediterranean. About a week before the conference, Abbas paid an official visit to Syria upon Assad's invitation. What did the two of them need to discuss with such urgency? Where did this newfound love stem from?
The rationale behind this is that Assad sees a new window of opportunity through which Syria could latch on to yet another diplomatic process, in addition to its current dialogue with Israel.
Syria, which until recently was isolated and is still in dispute with Egypt and Saudi Arabia, has suddenly gained a new standing as a result of Nicolas Sarkozy's embrace and George W. Bush's weakness.
Indeed, this is an opportunity that Assad does not want to miss.
Unlike Hamas, which enjoys Syrian patronage, Iranian support and Egyptian courting, the Palestinian Authority has only Ehud Olmert, and that is not very much.
It may even be more appropriate to say that it is detrimental to the PA. While the PA may have a network of Arab support, this comes more in declarations of principle and less in concrete actions. For decades now the Arab League has developed its skills at chatter without offering real solutions.
Its place is filled by states that "adopt" a conflict or two and exercise their contacts and abilities in resolving it.
Qatar took on, with success, the task of resolving the crisis in Lebanon; Yemen makes occasional forays, offering initiatives for resolving crises; Egypt is the "foster state" for the conflict between Israel and Hamas, but not of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The rest have no role to play. Jordan, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates are busy with their own affairs, and even Saudi Arabia has turned inward since the Arab League initiative in 2002. The Saudis failed to end the Lebanese crisis, and their effort to bridge the gap between Hamas and Fatah was a fiasco.
The cute division of the region into "moderate" states and those that are not has no strategic meaning. Despite the characterization of "moderate," none of these states is capable of dictating a general policy that would apply to the entire Middle East. This fact is surprising only to those who believe that the Middle East comprises a single mold of interconnected players.
This is the political scene that Syria is currently reading with such insight. Among those spreading the Arab aegis over Abbas, it will be the big player. It will want to ensure that an internal Palestinian reconciliation takes place on terms that are acceptable to Abbas, even if Khaled Meshal is angered a little, and even if it raises eyebrows in Iran. What does Assad always say? Iran is a friendly state, a strategic ally, but we do not always see eye to eye on all issues. The Palestinian and Israeli issues may be two of these.
Indeed, there have been four rounds of Syrian-Israeli talks and there has been no Iranian response. Neither condemnation nor support; no skepticism or ridicule. Nasrallah spoke endlessly this week about his glorious victory, but what about the negotiations between Syria and Israel? A declaration? Analysis? Mumbling? Nothing. Is Nasrallah in a position to dictate for Assad his political agenda? Is Iran in such a position?
Assad does not intend to disengage from Iran or Hezbollah; he is only adding another, separate track in the Palestinian field of play.
He aspires to link the Palestinian track with the Syrian one, just as he and his father did with the Lebanese track. Assad thus hopes to hold the solution in his hands, or at least give the impression that the key to the entire Middle East peace process is in his hands, and only his.
The practical implication is that the Israeli-Syrian conflict will need to be given priority over any other track. From Israel's point of view there is no major difference because the assumption is that the Syrian track is easier and may ensure important strategic advantages.
These would include a growing dependence by Hezbollah on Syria and an undermining of Iran's position.
From the Palestinian point of view, at least for the time being, there is also no difference. In any case, the negotiations with Israel are not leading to any practical results, even if the two sides reach a so-called shelf agreement.