The Bush administration has changed its position regarding a possible receptive Israeli response to the calls of Syria's President Bashar Assad for peace talks.
The American change of heart is accompanied by several preconditions. Washington emphasized that Israel is, of course, entitled to discuss the future of the Golan Heights, security arrangements and peace with Syria. But Israel should insist on not agreeing to any negotiations, not even indirectly, regarding the United States' positions, and also not about the future of Lebanon.
The new American message says that in possible talks with Syria, there are three "cards," or main issues. The first is the Golan Heights card, and this is a matter for Syria and Israel to decide.
The two other cards are Lebanon and the Washington's policies. Israel has been told that it is not in its interest to make promises to the Syrians regarding the way the U.S. will behave. This is a matter to be dealt with only by the U.S. and the Bush administration. Furthermore, Israel was told that the Lebanese question cannot be on the table of negotiations between Syria and Israel.
The American officials clearly have turned a blind eye to the issue of Syria's role in terrorism, the hosting of terrorist organizations in Damascus and its involvement in smuggling weapons to Hezbollah and from there to the Palestinian territories. Another issue they seem to have ignored is Iran and its military ties with Syria.
During one of the recent visits to Israel of U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, several months ago, the issue of the call made by the Syrian president for a resumption of negotiations with Israel was raised. In her response Rice was forcefully negative: It is best that you avoid even exploring this possibility.
This was interpreted by the government in Israel as a firm American position that Syria should not be allowed to take advantage of talks with Israel to extricate itself from its diplomatic isolation before it has fulfilled its obligation to prevent volunteers for the insurgency from crossing into Iraq, and before it met the demands of the international investigator of the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri.
When the matter of talks with Syria was raised in closed meetings, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert used to argue that President George Bush was opposed to talks with Damascus.
While Mossad chief Meir Dagan opposed talks with Syria, the military intelligence heads were in favor. This was the case of the former Military Intelligence chief, Major General (res.) Aharon Ze'evi-Farkash, and his successor, Major General Amos Yadlin. Former chief of staff Moshe Ya'alon raised the issue of talks with Syria in meetings with former prime minister Ariel Sharon, who rejected the proposal.
The American change of heart came about following the Arab League summit in Riyadh and Syria's participation in that meeting. During the meeting of Iraq's neighbors, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Mualem adopted a moderate position. Rice then held a private meeting with Mualem.
In the plan being prepared at the State Department for an international summit on the Arab-Israeli conflict, Rice intends to also invite Syria, in addition to Palestinian representatives and Israel. Under such circumstances it appears the American position regarding possible talks between Israel and Syria will no longer be relevant.
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