"Have you completely lost your minds?" the senior Arab diplomat wondered. "How is it that such a strong and enlightened country is wooing such a miserable and corrupt regime?" The remarks came one day after the celebratory disclosure of the Turkish channel for talks between Israel and Syria. The man could not believe that an experienced politician like Ehud Olmert doesn't understand that Bashar Assad is toying with him as though he were a political novice. Anyone with eyes in his head, he said, can see that the Syrian president is proving to the Arab world that it's possible to supply missiles to Hezbollah, to be a patron of Hamas and to be in Israel's good graces, all at the same time.
Afterward came the meeting with Italy's Foreign Minister, Franco Frattini. "I think that Assad is mistaken in his assessments," the prime minister told his visitor from Rome last week. Olmert was referring to Assad's announcement that direct negotiations with Israel would have to wait until after the U.S. presidential elections. "We can bring in Bush and the present administration as a partner and sponsor for talks," Olmert was quoted as saying. He even volunteered "to persuade Bush to agree to it," and wanted to convey the following message to the Syrians: "Now is the time to make progress. There is no reason to wait for anything."
Bush is not yet convinced, but the certificate of kashrut from Jerusalem paved Assad's way to Europe. The Syrian president had the privilege of standing alongside French President Nicolas Sarkozy and all the important European leaders at Monday's Bastille Day 14th of July celebrations. Sarkozy's predecessor, Jacques Chirac, who vowed to exact justice from Assad over the murder of his Lebanese friend, Rafik Hariri, must have turned over in his armchair. And why does the Syrian president deserve all this beneficence? What price has Syria paid recently in return for the entry ticket to the West? Nuclear cooperation with North Korea? Supplying missiles to Hezbollah?
The media are reporting on the "smuggling" of arms from Syria to Hezbollah. Even the United Nations, which is not considered a fan of Israel in these parts, determined that there is a regular supply of weapons with the blessing of the Damascus government.
Shortly after the end of the Second Lebanon War, in the wake of publicity about continued Syrian activity to arm Hezbollah, some figures urged Olmert to teach the Syrians a lesson. The prime minister, still traumatized by a failed war, refused to take a chance on another conflict. Even Syria's restraint over last September's bombing of its nuclear facility and the assassination of senior Hezbollah leader Imad Mughniyeh did not convince Olmert to use a stick against the Syrians. He preferred the carrot, and sent his aides to Turkey to put out feelers about talks.
Talks are a good way to handle foreign threats. Accordingly, ending its support for Hezbollah and Hamas is an important part of the payment that Syria will be asked to make in return for a peace treaty that will include Israel's withdrawal from the Golan Heights. But Assad repeatedly says that the agreement will have to await new decision makers in Jerusalem and Washington. It is hard to argue with him on this. What good does it do to reach an agreement with leaders who are retiring less than six months later? Why should he waste gestures, such as a handshake, on a suspected serial white-collar criminal? If a peace process is sufficient for receiving a certificate of integrity from Olmert and an embrace from Sarkozy, what's so urgent about reaching a peace agreement? The return to the family of nations is no less important to the Alawite family than the return to the Golan Heights.
One could have expected more impressive bargaining from a lawyer with considerable experience in real estate deals and garnering perks. The Syrians prefer to wait for a new Israeli leader. In that case, let them wait patiently for bonuses and pay the price for their contribution to the erosion of UN Security Council Resolution 1701. Would Olmert ask for the hand of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas if Military Intelligence were to place photographs of Russian-made missiles that the PA supplied to Hamas on the prime minister's desk? Israel is showing restraint and even being good to Syria - why shouldn't Syria continue to make the most of all worlds?
In August 2006 Olmert turned away a special envoy of the Swiss president empty-handed, when he reported that Assad wanted to upgrade the level of contacts being directed by Dr. Alon Liel and add a U.S. representative. After this channel came to light, Olmert mocked the former director general of the Foreign Ministry ("Liel conducted negotiations with himself"). Now is not the time for Olmert to do business with the Syrians. He should refrain from giving out meals on the house that he will soon be forced to leave.
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