It was on the 12th day of the Second Lebanon War. The northern skies were filled with Katyushas and fighter jets, and ambulance sirens deafened ears in Nahariya and Beirut. At that very same time, a Syrian, an Israeli, an American and a Swiss sat down in a room at the Bellevue Hotel in Bern, the tranquil capital of Switzerland, and talked about a peace agreement between Israel and Syria. In attendance were Damascus liaison Abe Suleiman; former director general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, Dr. Alon Liel; Swiss diplomat Nicholas Lang; and the representative of the Washington-based Foundation for Middle East Peace, Jeff Aronson. This would be the final meeting of this secret channel.
At least one of the impediments to the unofficial dialogue between Israel and Syria in the summer of 2006 still stands in the way of official peace talks between the two countries in the summer of 2007. The barrier this time is not found in Jerusalem or even Damascus, as there are signs that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Syrian President Bashar Assad are willing to do business.
Instead, the barrier standing in their way to the negotiating table is U.S. President George Bush. Or more accurately, his refusal to take the place reserved for the United States at the head of the table. At that same last meeting in Bern, Suleiman thanked Liel for his contribution to the peace efforts between Syria and Israel, and added that as far as Damascus was concerned, the unofficial option had been exhausted.
At the next meeting, Suleiman said, there needs to be a senior representative sent by the prime minister. And even that is not enough; with all due respect to the Swiss diplomat and the American citizen, Assad insists that an official representative of the U.S. administration must also show up. He mentioned David Welch, the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs. We all know how this chapter ends: Olmert described Suleiman as moonstruck, and the officials who received reports on the progress of the Swiss channel talks scurried to the other side of the corridor whenever they saw Liel approaching. The Winograd Committee's interim report and the Labor party primaries have reopened it.
Friends who spoke recently with Olmert get the impression that the prime minister understands that a dramatic peace agreement is his only chance of saving himself from the Winograd Committee, and getting Ehud Barak to revoke his promise to dismantle their partnership. The chaos in the territories lowered the stock of the Israeli-Palestinian channel to ground level, and he has no choice left but to invest in the speculative stock of Syria's president, Bashar Assad. The Syrian leader himself is in no enviable position. The doctor from the northern border does not know where trouble will come from: from the verdict of the international court in the case of Rafik Hariri's assassination, from an anxious Israeli government, or from Muslim extremists.
This convergence of interests has produced successive open declarations and concealed messages regarding the two figures' desire to renew peace talks. There is a bride and a groom, but where can we get an officiating rabbi? Assad has long given up on his demand that negotiations resume from where they left off seven years ago. Olmert also moderated his demands.
The condition that Assad divorce Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, turn his back on Hassan Nasrallah and kick out Khaled Mashal serves the prime minister primarily in media interviews. Even the excuse that Bush is not allowing him to come under the wedding canopy has been removed from his arsenal of excuses. Bush told Olmert that though he is not enthusiastic about the idea, if the prime minister wants to talk with Assad, the U.S. will not stand in his way.
But the way from there to appointing an American official to sit at the table with a representative of the "axis of evil" is far, or more accurately, blocked.
This is where everything is stuck. Michael Williams, the UN Secretary General's new emissary to the Middle East, will soon leave Damascus with the same impression obtained by the Turkish scouts (the contacts between Turkey and Syria were done primarily via telephone). Williams need not have been surprised. His deputy, Robert Dunne, met with Liel and Suleiman for a long talk the day after the latter two appeared before the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. They presented Dunne with the understandings formulated in the Swiss channel, and explained what needs to be done to fill in the blanks in their paper and turn it into an agreement.
Assad does not need Bush in order to talk to Olmert about the Golan Heights. But despite all the importance of giving back the Golan Heights to Syria, it is not important enough to anger the Iranians, undermine relations with Hezbollah and erode Hamas' influence. In exchange for peace with Israel, Egypt, Jordan and, for some time, the Palestinians, received an entry ticket to Washington and a bonus of billions of dollars. Bush did allow his secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, to meet with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem. The condition was that they talk only about Iraq.
But Assad also wants to talk to the Americans about his ties with Lebanon, about a deal in the Hariri case and about the economic embargo on Syria. The Lebanese newspaper, Al-Mustiqbal, reported yesterday that Muallem recently visited Washington and met with a senior American official at the home of Syrian ambassador Imad Moustapha. The condition was that the matter be kept confidential. But Assad does not want the Americans to be embarrassed to be seen on the street with him.
A goodwill ambassador
And in the meantime in London, Syrian ambassador Sami Khiyami said on Saturday that it is not logical to expect Syria to strip completely before getting into bed with Israel and with its American friend. He promised that when the Israelis, the Syrians and the Americans sit down at the table, each party would be able to present its own menu. However, Khiyami, an Assad confidante, proposed dropping the demand that peace with Israel, conciliation with the United States and improved ties with Europe come at the expense of Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas. Moreover, the West should have an interest in Damascus maintaining an open channel to Tehran. He cited as proof the use that was recently made of these ties in order to rescue the British sailors from Iranian captivity.
Khiyami also explained that Hezbollah is a legitimate party and Syria, therefore, does not intend to declare war on it. He expressed his confidence that a resolution of the Shaba Farms dispute and a peace treaty with Syria would lift the threat to Israel from the Lebanon border. Regarding the headquarters of Palestinian rejectionist organizations located in Damascus, the ambassador believes Syria has the power to help Israel reach an agreement with the Palestinians that would eliminate the need for such organizations, and they would effectively disappear. British Syrian affairs expert Patrick Seale points out that the ambassador indicated that Syria understands that the government of Israel cannot bear the burden of a simultaneous withdrawal on two fronts, and therefore it has no objection to the Palestinians waiting patiently until an agreement is reached on the Golan. "The main thing is that we don't let the olive branch drop out of our hands."
The ambassador spoke at a gathering organized by the Syrian Media Center, also attended by Assad's father-in-law, Fawas Akhras, and Patrick Seale, who was a regular visitor of Assad senior.
David Sasson, an Israeli living in London who represents the movement for peace with Syria there, presented himself to the Syrian ambassador and received an encouraging pat. Sasson was particularly impressed by Khiyami's answer to a question about the fate of Jewish residents of the Golan Heights.
The ambassador, notes Sasson, said Syria is a tolerant country that knows how to host, under its sovereignty of course, Armenians, Christians and Jews. He understood that if the residents agree to be loyal Syrian citizens, they could remain where they are.
Next week the London lobby for peace between Syria and Israel will receive reinforcements from Jerusalem and Washington. The British capital will be the last stop on the Liel-Suleiman European tour. The two were invited to address the European parliament in Brussels and to share their impressions with senior French Foreign Ministry officials.
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