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The United States has requested that Israel refrain from even sending out feelers to assess Syria's negotiating proposals, Ze'ev Schiff reported in Haaretz Friday. "Exploratory talks," Condoleezza Rice explained during her recent visit here, would be considered a prize to Damascus.

Let's assume for the moment that there is some logic to this approach toward Syria. What about the Palestinian negotiating channel? Is it also remaining blocked in order not to award a prize to Hamas, which is not interested in peace talks with Israel? If the principle behind U.S. Middle East policy is tallying up the winners and losers of every diplomatic move, then we must clarify who will be the happy winner of the prize - negotiations toward a final settlement between Israel and the Palestinians - and who will lose the whole kitty. Who will profit from Israel's refusal to renew the negotiations on the Palestinian track and from U.S. support for its prolonged stasis.

If Syria is the enemy of Middle East peace, then perpetuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should be considered a handsome consolation prize for Damascus. And why would Hamas, which is bending over backwards not to recognize Israel's right to exist, want to remove the obstacles to such an arrangement? If the U.S. and its Quartet partners, not to mention the Israeli government, truly want to bypass Hamas on the road to the final- status agreement, then why are they granting it veto power over the peace process?

A diplomatic measure that advances a permanent arrangement is not like the odds for winning the lottery - the chance of winning exceeds the risk that the Muslim Brotherhood will strengthen its grip on neighboring states and turn Israel, in the near future, into a binational state. The brass ring of a final agreement has been waiting to be claimed for five years now, since the Saudi initiative became, in March 2002, a binding resolution of the Arab League in Beirut, offering the normalization of relations with Israel by all league members in exchange for Israel's withdrawal to its pre-1967 borders. The language of the Beirut Declaration does not close the door to "exploratory talks," or even to negotiations on the possibility of exchanging territory, reaching a compromise on the holy sites in Jerusalem and solving the refugee problem outside Israel's borders.

It is not for nothing that Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas represented the Mecca agreement as the preface to an Arab peace initiative and the realization of President George Bush's vision of two states. The creation of the PA unity government is intended to force Hamas into a slaughterhouse chute whose final destination is Riyadh. Next month the Arab League will convene in that Saudi city in order to extract a commitment from all attendees, including the Palestinian unity government, to all of the principles of the Beirut Declaration. This would force the Hamas representatives in the official Palestinian declaration to choose between religious ideology, which forbids them from recognizing the Jewish state's right to exist, and the Arab consensus.

Representing the Mecca a greement as a prize to Hamas and refusing to recognize the government based on it reminds one of the Arab proverb about the thief who would rather fight with the guard than eat the grapes. Instead of wasting time on arguing over the demand that the unity government recognize interim agreements that have passed their sell-by date, the only formula for a permanent agreement that earned the support of all 22 Arab League members could have been submitted to that government. This simple logic also hold for the Syrians. Tehran and Hezbollah are not grieving over Jerusalem's welcome acceptance of Washington's prohibition against reopening communication lines to Damascus, even covertly.

If the Israeli government were to treat the peace process like the grand prize instead of a threat, it would not stop at exploratory talks. It would use its connections in Washington to persuade the U.S. president to renew negotiations with Syria immediately. As with the Palestinians, there is no other way to assess Syria's intentions and force it to choose its partner. If Bashar Assad is bluffing, that will become obvious within a few months, if not weeks, and he will lose the brass ring. Time, as Jordan's King Abdullah said recently, is not on the side of peoples whose leaders know what they do not want but have no idea what they do want.