Before Even One Home Is Removed From the Golan

While in Damascus they are celebrating the talks with Israel with a small international summit, the negotiations themselves hang forlornly, waiting for a new official and a new prime minister.

This could happen in no ordinary country - that is, no normal one: Because of one official, albeit a senior one, the faucet is turned off and a diplomatic process comes to a halt. Because the legal standing of Yoram Turbowicz, who was one of the leaders of the indirect talks with the Syrians, has yet to be resolved, talks cannot be held with Syria. Syrian President Bashar Assad was understanding about it. After all, unlike Syria where everything depends on the president, in Israel everything depends on an official. And so Assad will wait.

Thus, while in Damascus they are celebrating the talks with Israel with a small international summit, the negotiations themselves hang forlornly, waiting for a new official and a new prime minister. But this waiting room provides an excellent opportunity for those who aspire to the office of prime minister to stop and look for a moment at the strategic opportunities that dialogue with Syria has already generated, before even one home on the Golan Heights has been evacuated.

For example, this is the first diplomatic process in which Israel is participating that the United States is not, and the sky has not fallen. Better yet, Israel, which has always made sure to enlist the U.S. against Syria and made an essential contribution to sanctions against Syria, has broken through a new road for itself and shown the U.S. policy of sanctions to be an empty vessel. The U.S. still has a place reserved in these talks, not because of Israel, but because Assad is insisting on obtaining U.S. sponsorship.

That is the second turning point: This is the same Assad who has throughout the years attacked the U.S. because of its one-sided policy toward Israel; Assad who is strategically enmeshed with Iran. Even French President Nicolas Sarkozy's slight mocking of Washington's policy of indignation could not change the reality.

The other strategic change, no less important, is the participation of Turkey and Qatar in the Damascus summit. Syria managed to build itself an independent regional axis that does not depend of the Arab League, Egypt or Saudi Arabia.

Its negotiations with Israel have already been the cause of teeth-gnashing in Tehran and speechlessness in Hezbollah. The relationship with Iran is very important to Syria, but it cannot dictate policy toward the U.S. or Israel.

Close ties with Turkey are no substitute for the relationship with Iran, rather an addition to them, and both Saudia Arabia and Egypt will have no choice but to join the Syrian move.

But there is nothing much new in that. Hafez Assad's Syria was also independent in its decisions; Assad senior also negotiated with Israel, bequeathing to his son a document written by prime minister Yitzkak Rabin from which it could be understood that Israel would be willing to withdraw from the Golan Heights and which, according to Syria, Rabin "deposited" with U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher during the negotiations.

True, despite continuity in Syrian policy going back to Hafez Assad's day, some will claim that this is a fantastic manipulation created by Bashar Assad, who bought his way out of isolation, with the help of France, through false promises of dialogue with Israel.

Almost like the statements made about Olmert, who "as is known" only wanted to extricate himself from his legal entanglement by shaking hands with Assad, and found himself a captive of the process.

But even if this is a manipulation, it has already begun developing a life of its own. Syria and Israel have entered a process, the exit from which now requires a tough decision.

If Syria stops the process it will lock its wheels on the road leading to Washington and a pivotal role in the Middle East. If Israel stops the process, it will always be seen as not truly wanting any diplomatic process and award additional points in Syria's and the Palestinians' favor.

The problem is that Israel has never been impressed with such arguments and has always looked toward Washington to watch its back. But today even in Washington there is no one to speak to. Bush, who is sure that the cold plate of spaghetti called negotiations with the Palestinians will produce some document by the end of the year, insists on not joining talks with Syria. That is a pity.

He could at least have chalked up to his efforts the renewal of direct talks between Israel and Syria, and bequeathed a "deposit" to the next American president that could not be avoided: a peace process involving a power that is perceived in the region as a warmonger. That is the type of partner Israel needs now.