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After Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia (Abu Ala) voiced the threat of a binational state, the White House reminded him of his commitment to the road map. After the steering committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization announced that it had the right to declare a Palestinian state, the Prime Minister's Bureau in Jerusalem directed the Palestinian Authority to the road map. But it is Syrian President Bashar Assad, who has been declaring his willingness to renew negotiations with Israel, who is coming out the underdog. He is not being directed to a peace process that has the signature of U.S. President George W. Bush and the blessing of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Neither of them has promised Assad that like in the case of the Palestinians, on the day when Damascus dismantles the "terror infrastructures," the Quartet, led by the United States, will launch the talks on a permanent agreement between Syria and Israel.

What does the Quartet have to do with a permanent agreement and negotiations with Syria? Here is a reminder from the road map: In the introductory section of the document, it says that the outline is based on the foundations of the Madrid Conference, the principle of land for peace, agreements that have been achieved in the past, and the initiative of the Saudi crown prince that was adopted by the Arab League in Beirut. "This initiative is a vital element of international efforts to promote a comprehensive peace on all tracks, including the Syrian-Israeli and Lebanese-Israeli ones."

And to eradicate all doubt, the section detailing the map's third phase, which is slated for implementation during 2005, states that at the beginning of 2004, (in other words, at around this time), the Quartet will convene an international conference whose purpose, among other things, will be "to support progress toward a comprehensive Middle East settlement between Israel and Lebanon and Israel and Syria, to be achieved as soon as possible."

The end of the document states that the peace agreement with the Palestinians will be accompanied by full normalization of relations between Israel and the Arab states, "in the context of a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace."

The man whose signature is affixed beneath these fine words is turning a cold shoulder to the pleas of the Syrian ruler to jump onto his map. Bush is refusing to extend the unique matchmaking services of the United States and he isn't pressing Sharon to respond to the courtship by the northern neighbor. He is refraining from relating to the fact that an American president - Bill Clinton - signed the December 1999 draft of the Shepherdstown Israeli-Syrian peace agreement. Dennis Ross, who was head of the American peace team, stated in the film "Shattered Dreams of Peace" that Ehud Barak got "cold feet." According to Uri Saguy, who headed the Israeli delegation to the talks with the Syrians, Israel was never closer to peace with Syria than it was at the end of the Shepherdstown meeting between then-prime minister Barak and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Shara.

What is stopping Bush from inviting Assad and Sharon to Shepherdstown? In the best case, Israel and Syria will leave there with a peace agreement (and, of course, an end to the support for terror). In the worst case, it will turn out that Assad is a pain in the neck.

The strangest argument that has been offered against a renewal of the contacts on the Syrian track was Sharon's - that Assad is trying to use Israel as "a stepping stone into the White House." Is our access to the White House steps good only for purposes of war and deterrence? And didn't Egypt and Jordan skip this step on the way to Jerusalem? Aren't the relations with the United States a central element in Israeli policy?

Syria will remain outside the road map not because of the White House steps and not even because of its support for the rejectionist organizations: The White House is working against the regime in Damascus and for what it considers the interest of the United States - "the democratization" of the Middle East, tightening its control over the sources of oil and giving compensation to the Sunnis in Iraq. In an election year, Bush is just as keen on quarrels with the Jews over a withdrawal from the Golan Heights as Sharon is interested in "The nation is with the Golan" placards outside his window. Like in the Palestinian areas of the map, in the Syrian sector too, U.S. policy has nothing at all to do with Israeli interests.