Border Control / The Syrian Snowball Effect

It started two months ago with U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Ellen Sauerbrey's visit to Syria, continued with the U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's quick trip and ended last week with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's meeting with her Syrian counterpart, Walid Moallem, in Sharm el-Sheikh. At this pace, the situation might deteriorate to the point that Syrian President Bashar Assad is invited to visit Washington.

It started with a discussion on the fate of the one million Iraqi refugees who found refuge in Syria and continued with a discussion on Syria's contribution to extricating the United States from the Iraqi quagmire. If we don't pay attention, soon the U.S. will lift the boycott of Syria. Even so, the departure of Jacques Chirac, who swore he would avenge himself on the Syrians for the murder of his friend, former Lebanese prime minister Rafik al-Hariri, is expected to lift the last impediment in Syria's way to an association agreement with the European Union.

Upon leaving her meeting with Moallem, Rice made certain to reassure everyone that there is nothing more logical than talking with the Syrian foreign minister about the problems related to Iraq, and said she called on Damascus to take steps to prevent the infiltration of armed combatants via its borders with Iraq. At the same time, she did not mention that official U.S. Army data indicate that there was a continuous decline in the number of armed combatants who infiltrated into Iraq via the Syrian border in April. Moallem hinted that this meeting was not the last in the renewed dialogue between the two countries and that he was assured that if Syria continues to assist the U.S. in the areas of interest to it, the American administration would be generous not only with regard to the quantity of meetings but also as far as the quality of the topics of discussion is concerned.

From the perspective of the Mossad and other intelligence personnel, Syria was and remains a threat to Israel. Mossad chief Meir Dagan, for example, fears the Americans will stop prohibiting Israel from doing what it is taking the liberty of doing. In effect, the Bush administration is no longer really "prohibiting" Ehud Olmert from talking with the Syrians. When David Welch, Rice's aide, was recently asked about his opinion on negotiations with Syria, his answer was to make do with, "why would you?"

The Foreign Ministry did not wait for Welch's approval to prepare a position paper. Its bottom line is that whoever does not seriously relate to Assad's "peace signals," should take seriously his threats of war. The Foreign Ministry believes there are two main options: one is peace negotiations with Syria, without preconditions. The other option is preparations for a preventive attack. A third possibility, continuing the status quo on the Golan Heights, appears with a very low likelihood, if at all.

The Defense Ministry does not like the involvement of the bureaucrats - as they call the Foreign Ministry officials - in the Syrian arena. When intelligence officials want to move politicians in their direction, they pull out "the material." Dagan recently said that based on "the material" in his hands, the leaders of moderate Arab states will perceive negotiations with Syria as "a stab in the back."

As in many cases, there is a bit of truth to that. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Saudi Arabia's King Abdallah, Jordan's King Abdullah and, of course, Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) fear that overly vigorous involvement in the Syrian channel will perpetuate the blockage in the Palestinian channel. However, they estimate that a peace process could push Hamas in the desired direction and contribute to distance Syria from Iran's embrace.

Officials in the Prime Minister's Bureau realize that dealing with his political survival does not absolve Olmert of the need to decide how to proceed in the Syrian arena. On the contrary, if he wants the Winograd Committee's final report to look better than the interim one, Olmert will have to address the harsh criticism about the failure to hold a discussion to consider the alternatives to the way the war was waged. As it happens, the prime minister knows committee member Prof. Yehezkel Dror's opinion on his demand that Syria stop supporting terror as a prerequisite for renewing negotiations. Only the word "folly" is missing there.

Today marks four months since Ehud Barak entered the race for the Labor party leadership, or more accurately the race for the post of defense minister in the Olmert government. He devoted most of the letter he sent to Party Secretary-General Eitan Cabel to the importance of Barak's return to the Defense Ministry. Barak opened his letter with the words: "I wish to inform you of my decision to run for the post of the next minister of defense in the Israeli cabinet." Only afterward did he write, "I have informed the current minister of defense, Amir Peretz, that I would not be involved in any stinking maneuver and therefore I plan to run for the post of Labor party chairman in the election scheduled for May." And later on: "I believe I have the experience and the readiness to serve as the next defense minister of the State of Israel."

When this letter was dispatched, Barak could not have known what Judge Eliyahu Winograd and his colleagues think of the boss at his new-old place of work, the place he is campaigning to serve the nation from. Did the Winograd Committee's report change Barak's desire to serve in the current government, as he stated in the letter to Cabel dated January 8? As far as is known, until yesterday, Barak did not officially notify the secretary-general's office that he is no longer willing to serve under Olmert's scepter. If there is no change in Barak's campaign strategy, the public, including Labor party members who will go to the polls in three weeks, will have to rely on Cabel's understanding of the hints he received from his preferred candidate.

But there is also a different understanding besides that of Cabel, the only minister to follow in the wake of Ophir Pines-Paz and hand back the keys to the Volvo. The members of Barak's opening trio in the party leadership - Benjamin Ben Eliezer, Isaac Herzog and Shalom Simhon - are not risking any steps that may return them to the Knesset's backbenches. They are not only offering a different position to that of Barak with regard to his joining the government; the three are leaving Barak no room for doubt about the possibility of removing them from there.

One can learn about this group's influence on Barak from the same letter he sent to Cabel: "The call of Minister Benjamin Ben Eliezer, a senior army and security official and a man who already served as defense minister and party chairman, as well as the discussions I had with many faction members, led me to take the decision that I must rededicate myself in the coming years to public service through hard work, and use my experience to contribute to Israel's security."

On one hand, Barak, with his sky-high IQ, understands that the connection of the name Ehud and the name Olmert does not contribute to his comeback. On the other hand, he cannot allow himself to irritate his chief vote contractors in the Arab villages and in the moshavim. Yet he knows that if he joins Olmert's government, someone will refer the press to the chapter in the Winograd report that deals with the unilateral withdrawal from southern Lebanon and to the 2001 State Comptroller's report, which referred to the abandonment of the northern communities following that withdrawal. What does one do? Keep quiet.

Ostensibly, Shimon Peres has the problems of a rich man. How many politicians in Israel had to choose between being prime minister and being president? That is what it looks like in the papers. In MKs' notebooks the situation looks completely different. At least in the accounts relating to who has the least chance of becoming president.

According to calculations this week by associates of the candidates, the loss this time round is likely to be more grating than the loss to Moshe Katsav, a trauma that pursues Peres to this day. If Rabbi Yisrael Lau decides to join the race, Peres is likely to be humiliated by a defeat already in the first round. Even the chances of Dalia Itzik, who is courting all MKs, regardless of party affiliation, religion and gender, of remaining in the President's residence appear better than Peres' chance of moving in there.

It is hard to believe that Itzik will allow herself to run against her patron. In order to be able to drop the prefix "acting," Peres will have to transfer the support of Kadima, Labor, Pensioners Party and Meretz MKs to her. This, of course, refers to those MKs who agreed to support him and will not do to him what five members of his faction did to him seven years ago.

The post of prime minister, which is infinitely more important, actually seems more within the vice premier's reach. Kadima officials are preparing for the possibility that the Labor party will make the continuation of the coalition partnership contingent on replacing the prime minister. Likud Chairman Benjamin Netanyahu may be willing to replace the Labor ministers around the cabinet table, but he, too, is making such a move contingent on Olmert not being at the head of the table. There is little doubt that if the Kadima leadership has to choose between holding early elections and Olmert going home, the majority will prefer the second option. In that case, the law grants Kadima no more than a week to inform the president about its candidate to form a new government.

A party that to this day has never held any formal election of its candidates to public positions will not manage to hold primaries in that timeframe, as required by its bylaws. At the moment there is no indication that any of the contenders for the leadership - Tzipi Livni, Shaul Mofaz and Meir Sheetrit - will give up even a temporary leadership position without a fight. Who is left? Shimon Peres, the most permanent temporary candidate in Israeli politics. The Kadima party's regulations, which do not allow the temporary chairman the right to contend for the permanent appointment, guarantees that Peres will not forget to return the keys, as he did with his previous party.