Assad's French Nightmare

Intelliegnce sources say Bashar Assad's peace assault on Israel is designed to remove pressure from French President Jacques Chirac, who is out to avenge the murder of his friend Rafik Hariri.

Paradoxically, Syrian President Bashar Assad, the host of Hamas political leader Khaled Meshal, unintentionally managed to ease the blockage clogging the channel between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas. To say "no" to the entire world all the time, Likud could have been left in power. Benjamin Netanyahu met with Yasser Arafat and sent Ron Lauder to talk to Hafez Assad. Therefore, moving for a political process with Abbas is, to a certain extent, the default option.

The prime minister clearly has not adopted the assessment of Mossad chief Meir Dagan. During the last Lebanon war, Dagan constantly reiterated his recommendation that Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora should be ignored. In private talks, Olmert has said that even though he knows a successful peace process with Syria would mean leaving the Golan Heights, this would not stop him from opening negotiations. The main reason for Olmert's lack of interest in talking to Assad is Assad's desire to talk with Olmert. According to intelligence assessments presented to the senior political leadership, Syria's peace assault on Israel is basically a defensive maneuver ahead of what the Alawite regime sees as a French-American plot to bring it down. The fear of the French is greater than the fear of the Americans. Jacques Chirac does not conceal his deep hatred for those he sees as behind the murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri.

According to the information at Israel's disposal, Assad fears that Chirac is determined not to leave the Elysee Palace so long as his friend's murderer is sitting pretty in his palace. In order to get past Chirac in one piece, Assad is willing to promise the Americans that if they back off a bit, he will seal out Al-Qaida on the Iraq border, provide information on Jihad activists and even ensure that Siniora does not prematurely join Hariri and Pierre Gemayel.

In the meantime, Washington has not responded, Paris is not changing its policy, and Olmert is not letting himself irritate either of them. Hamas is refusing to recognize Israel, Hezbollah is making threats, and Iran is acquiring nuclear capabilities. Who's left? Abu Mazen, the man whom Sharon, who brought Olmert to where he is, referred to as "a chick without feathers." When there are no songbirds, one must make do with a chick.

Listen to his mother

Olmert's refusal to talk with the Syrians made Labor MK Matan Vilnai reminisce about his mother. On Tuesday, during a discussion in the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Vilnai said Assad's peace efforts should not be ignored. The retired general said that before the Yom Kippur War, "My Egyptian mother used to say we have to compromise with the Arabs. I was a young officer full of strength, and I thought we need not rush to respond to the Egyptians."

MK Yossi Beilin asked if that was also how his father, Prof. Ze'ev Vilnai, a Greater Land of Israel proponent, felt. "The smart one in the family was Mom, and Mom was always right," Vilnai answered with a smile.

Committee chairman Tzachi Hanegbi intervened: "What would happen if my mother were also always right?" said the Knesset member who forewent the right-wing doctrines of his mother, Geula Cohen, in favor of the center. It would be even more interesting if Hanegbi's Kadima colleagues, and primarily Olmert, were to start listening to Tzipi Livni's mother. The foreign minister has come a long way from the house of her father, Eitan Livni, the operations officer of the Irgun, to Condoleezza Rice's apartment in Washington.

On Saturday night less than three weeks ago, the two met there for talks that lasted nearly four hours. The meeting was described as "private," and its contents were not publicized. However, some foreign ministry officials identified the source of the report by Nathan Guttman, the Washington correspondent for the Jewish weekly The Forward, on a new American proposal to establish a Palestinian state now within temporary borders. A small group of confidantes knows this is not exactly "an American proposal," nor is it a new proposal.

On June 13, it was reported here that "Livni confirms she told senior officials that 'at the moment Abbas is not a partner for a permanent arrangement, but he can be a partner in other arrangements, on the basis of the gradual program cited in the road map." Livni specifically spoke of an agreement with the Palestinians to establish a state within temporary borders, Haaretz reported.

These borders are supposed to abut the route of the fence, an arrangement that will leave the large settlement blocs (approximately 10 percent of the area) in Israeli hands, at least until a permanent arrangement is signed. At the time, it was noted that the second stage of the road map presents the option of a sovereign, independent Palestinian state within temporary borders as "a step en route to a permanent arrangement." All of this would be in coordination with the Palestinian Authority, and with its full consent.

Then, too, the Americans were involved. Then, too, there was talk of a timetable and guarantees that would ensure temporary did not become permanent. When Beilin asked Livni not long ago to define the difference between her ideas and the plan he formulated with Yasser Abed Rabbo (a permanent arrangement by 2010), Livni responded with a smile that it really was difficult for her to see any differences.

The new thing in this story, as opposed to what was publicized in June, is the American secretary of state's increased involvement in the process, and the rise in Livni's self-confidence. Even though Livni and Olmert are members of the same party, ties between them are reminiscent of the days of the Labor-Likud rotation government of the 1980s. At the height of the second Lebanon war, when Livni sought to head to New York in order to take part in the talks ahead of UN Security Council Resolution 1701, and Olmert grounded her, she learned firsthand that flattery is not her boss's strong point.

The story of the Palestinian state within temporary borders reminded veterans of Shimon Peres' way of Americanizing Israeli plans. He assumed that if he could transform his understandings with King Hussein (the London Agreement) into an American document, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir would swallow the bitter pill. The Foreign Ministry hopes that this time, the story will have a much happier ending.

What Ford saw

President Gerald Ford, who died yesterday at a ripe old age, taught Yitzhak Rabin an important lesson on the relationship between American domestic politics and foreign policy, between election-eve promises and the day after. In the late 1960s, as Republican minority leader in the U.S. House of Representatives, Ford promised Rabin, then Israeli ambassador to Washington, that the first thing he would do if he made it to the White House was move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. In the mid-1970s, Prime Minister Rabin sat across from President Ford in the Oval Office. The guest reminded the president of his promise. Ford smiled and said without hesitation, "Yitzhak, my friend, from this room, life looks completely different."

In spring 1995, Rabin told me this anecdote - which is also cited in his memoirs, "Pinkas Sherut" - in the home of the Israeli ambassador to the U.S., Itamar Rabinowitz. A short time earlier, he had found out that Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole and Republican House majority leader Newt Gingrich, with the help of the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC, were sponsoring a bill requiring the administration to move the embassy to Jerusalem no later than May 1999 (the scheduled date for a permanent arrangement with the Palestinians).

Rabin and President Bill Clinton were furious. They feared the initiative would further damage the problematic relations with Yasser Arafat and embarrass King Hussein. The prime minister was consoled by the fact that that the bill would grant the president authority to suspend it so long as he felt the move might damage the U.S.'s strategic interests.

The man who initiated the bill was Jerusalem's mayor, Ehud Olmert, who was looking for another gimmick to add to Jerusalem's 3,000-year celebration. President George W. Bush has just signed a form to suspend the law for the umpteenth time. Apparently, life seems totally different from the Prime Minister's Office, too, or as the right-wingers Benjamin Netanyahu and Ariel Sharon said shortly after they entered that office: "What you see from here is not what you see from there.