What do the three leaders involved in the renewed talks between Israel and Syria have in common? All are under the shadow of investigations that may end their political careers. The suspicions against Prime Minister Ehud Olmert are puny comparted to those facing Syrian President Bashar Assad and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan: Assad is suspected of involvement in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, and the High Court in Ankara is hearing a petition to disband Erdogan's party.
A diplomatic breakthrough will doubtless ease the pressure on all three men. Olmert can enlist the media and the defense establishment to pressure law enforcement to leave him alone, just as they left Ariel Sharon alone during the disengagement. Assad will enjoy a period of international grace after years of isolation. Erdogan can show that his diplomatic moves have repositioned Turkey as a leader in the Middle East.
But it would be a mistake to see the Israeli-Syrian talks after as merely a response to the distress of Olmert, Assad and Erdogan.
Israel wants to destabilize the "rocket coalition" of Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas. Israel will be deciding in the coming months whether to bomb the Iranian nuclear facility or invade the Gaza Strip. In both cases it would be better for Israel if Syria does not intervene on behalf of its allies. A Syrian turn toward peace might also nudge Hamas toward a cease-fire with Israel in the South and deny Hezbollah a strategic partner. That might obviate the need to attack Gaza and make it easier for Olmert to order Israel Air Force Commander Major General Ido Nehushtan to set out for Natanz and Arak.
The Syrians, for their part, want to take control in Lebanon, taking advantage of the waning international stature of President George Bush. They would prefer Israel not bother them and their Hezbollah allies, and neutralize possible American intervention to shore up Fouad Siniora's tottering government in Beirut.
Olmert and Assad have shown that they can take great risks, Olmert in getting out of Lebanon and bombing the reactor in Syria and Assad in building the reactor, standing up to America and collaborating with Hezbollah. That does not mean they will be able to agree on a peace deal involving the Golan Heights. But while the political obstacles to an agreement are formidable, all involved clearly have an interest in the talks.
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