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Of late, visitors to Damascus have returned from the Syrian capital with the impression that the Syrians have understood the Israelis aren't going to help them find a shortcut out of the "axis of evil." Therefore, instead of wasting time with indirect and secret contacts with Israel in the hope of getting the Golan Heights back, the Syrians are now focusing on open, direct efforts to court the United States. Syrian President Bashar Assad assumes that while he is on his way home from Baghdad, United States President George W. Bush will get rid of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's excuse for not opening negotiations over the Golan Heights - in addition to getting rid of the boycott of Syria.

Reminder: In the wake of the revelation of the secret talks held between unofficial representatives of Israel and Syria in Haaretz on January 16, Olmert said Ibrahim (Abe) Suleiman, the Syrian-American who represented Assad's positions at meetings in Switzerland with former senior staff in the Israeli establishment, is a "hallucinatory" fellow.

The Prime Minister's Bureau claimed that the meeting Swiss mediator Nicholas Lang held in the midst of the Lebanon War with Olmert's Chief of Staff Yoram Turbowicz had nothing at all to do with the negotiating track with Syria. Dov Weissglas, who had been Ariel Sharon's advisor, said he had heard nothing about the meetings Dr. Alon Liel (and in the initial stages also Dr. Uzi Arad) held with Suleiman. All of them dismissed the testimony of Dr. Jeff Aronson of the Foundation for Middle East Peace in Washington, who also participated in the meetings.

A very reliable source revealed this week in a closed conversation that Ariel Sharon, whose path Olmert "pledged to follow," was not alarmed by the American boycott of Syria. By the first stages of the talks in "the Swiss channel," Sharon received a report on them from the head of Military Intelligence at the time, Major General Aharon Ze'evi (Farkash). The prime minister's reaction and the tenor of his remarks indicated that this was not the first time he had heard about the meetings. "How do you know about that?" asked Sharon. One of those present relates that Farkash replied: "If I didn't know about it, you would have to fire me." Sharon hastened to change the subject.

Apparently Weissglas was speaking the truth when he claimed he didn't know anything about those meetings. Because of the great sensitivity of his friend, President Bush, to every squeak in his "axis of evil," Sharon maintained the greatest secrecy with respect to contacts with Syria. He also revealed nothing at all to his deputy, Ehud Olmert. Therefore, when two months ago the prime minister declared that he knew nothing about the meetings with Suleiman, indeed, he did not know.

Only a few days later, in a meeting with Farkash on the eve of his last trip to Washington, did Olmert hear for the first time from an authoritative source about the meetings that had begun while Sharon was in office and continued into the midst of the Lebanon war. Farkash also told him that Sharon knew about the meetings and tacitly agreed to them. Farkash suggested to the prime minister that he behave the same way Sharon did on the Syrian track and not hide behind the excuse that "the Americans are nixing it."

Farkash refused yesterday to relate to this story for good or for ill. He says he doesn't usually comment in public on information that came to him in his military capacity or to comment on the contents of his conversations with prime ministers. However, the former head of Military Intelligence has no problem expressing criticism of the government's policy toward Syria. "The approach that Assad is not a partner is pushing him into the axis of evil," says the man who until a year ago was Israel's national assessor. "He doesn't want to be there, but when everyone is rejecting him and telling him he is a bad boy, there is nothing left for him to do but to behave like a bad boy."

Recently Farkash met with a former senior official in the American administration who came to Israel after a visit to Damascus. The individual, who has good connections with the Bush administration and the Assad administration, noted a change in direction in the relations between the two leaders. "The crisis in Iraq is compelling the Americans to talk with countries that surround Iraq, among them Syria," Farkash sums up. He sees this as good news for Israel, because the Syrians prefer the Egyptian model of a Pax Americana to the Palestinian and Jordanian model of direct negotiations with Israel. Farkash warmly recommends that Israel not be indifferent to the challenge the Syrians are throwing at its feet and stop hiding behind crumbling excuses.

Who respects whom?

The use of the term "respect" in the provision concerning the attitude of the Hamas-Fatah government toward agreements signed by Fatah is taking a prominent place in the Israeli propaganda campaign against the new Palestinian government. The explainers are saying that this phrase in the guidelines of the unity government is aimed at circumventing the need to explicitly commit to observing the old agreements.

It is interesting to see where the Palestinians found this bastardly term "respect," a term that obviously leaves an escape hatch from observing the commitment to cease the hostile actions against Israel. With all due respect to the linguistic creativity of the authors of the document, it emerges that the copyright doesn't belong to the Palestinians. In this case, too, they are lagging behind us. In the guidelines of the first Sharon government from March 2001, and in the guidelines of the second government, which were published in February 2003, it states that "the government of Israel will respect the previous diplomatic agreements that have been approved in the Knesset."

Fortunately, the Palestinians have not copied the entire provision. The sting in the story resides in its tail: "in accordance with their observation by the other side." It is not hard to imagine what delicacies the Foreign Ministry would have made of an addition of this sort to the guidelines of the Palestinian government. Former prime minister, Likud MK Benjamin Netanyahu, who invented the motto of "they give, they get; they don't give, they don't get," could not have come complaining to the Palestinian government.

It would be interesting to know what would have happened, for example, had the new Palestinian education minister ordered the cessation of incitement against Israel in the schools only if Israel observes the commitment the governments of both Sharon and Olmert made to the United States and the other members of the Middle East Quartet to dismantle the illegal outposts. Or at least those outposts official Israel admits are located on private Palestinian lands. Not to mention a conditioning of the truce on the cessation of construction in the West Bank's Jewish settlements.