Headlines Instead of Initiatives

A radio reporter who covered the live broadcast of the joint press conference held by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Sunday found it difficult to conceal his consternation. "The prime minister dropped a bomb," reported the radio host, in response to the "announcement" that the prime minister sought to relay "to heads of Arab states." Olmert announced, "If the Saudi king initiates a meeting of heads of moderate [Arab] states and invites me and the head of the Palestinian Authority, I will be glad to attend and express our opinion."

That happened on Sunday, April 1, three days after the end of the Arab League summit in Riyadh. Olmert already knew that his offer was not even worthy of the definition of an unhatched scheme. On the previous Sunday, March 25, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon revealed to Haaretz that the international Quartet wished to invite Olmert and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), along with the Arab Quartet, to promote the peace process.

Olmert alluded to that initiative in the press conference with Merkel. When he spoke of "heads of moderate states," the prime minister meant the Arab Quartet (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates). Three days later, Arab leaders, including the Saudi king, rejected the proposal and sent Olmert a proposal of their own.

When the prime minister dropped his "bomb," a concrete proposal from the Arab League was ticking right under his feet. In the context of an exchange between "heads of moderate states," the summit suggested that a working delegation, organized by the League, meet with a similar Israeli delegation. The understanding that the League would determine the composition of that delegation was a given. Just as Arabs don't determine who is a moderate Jew, Israel cannot determine who is a moderate Arab. Peace talks are not a made-to-order program. Anyone who wants his picture taken with the Saudi king will have to ensure that the Syrian president fits into the frame.

If the League invites Bashar Assad to appoint a representative to its team, Israel cannot bring a note from Uncle Sam saying that he does not permit us to play with "rough characters." Rather than say "no" to the Arab proposal, Olmert preferred to ignore it and continue to pass on messages to the "moderate Arab states," which rejected his overtures.

Most of the press bought this red herring. Time Magazine columnist Joe Klein and bureau chief Tim McGirk were among the isolated few who detected a whiff of spin. They remained in their seats when they heard Olmert's promise that if he is granted an opportunity to meet with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, "he will be very surprised to hear what I have to say." They apprised readership of what they assessed to be "a creaky effort to come up with a headline," behind Olmert's bombastic declaration.

This is not Olmert's first "creaky effort to come up with a headline" on the backs of the Saudis, particularly on the back of the ruler's national security adviser, Prince Bandar bin Sultan. Rumors of his secret meetings with senior Israelis (that never took place) did little to contribute to the health of the Saudi prince, who is, in any case, underwhelmed by the revival of Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal. Following previous Israeli spin regarding an "amendment to the Arab peace initiative," al-Faisal quickly extricated himself from the Israeli prime minister's bear hug. Days before the Riyadh summit, he released, following a meeting with Javier Solana, that he told the European Union high representative for common foreign and security policy that, "We only hear conditions that Israel imposes on the initiative. You cannot conduct negotiations like that."

The "meeting of moderates" spin demonstrates that Olmert has not recovered from the custom of "sending a big hug" to those who welcome it and also to those who don't. The Saudis have made it clear that they do not expect Israel initially to sign every clause of the Arab League document. However, they do believe that a meeting with Israel represents a step toward normalcy that is a significant element of the Arab initiative.

The Associated Press reported yesterday that a Saudi source maintains that Riyadh will not even consider a meeting with Olmert before Israel accepts the initiative. The Americans and the Europeans acted otherwise. Rather than bury another peace initiative, they chose to show Olmert that they also know a thing or two about hugging. The U.S. State Department spokesman and Solana "embraced" Olmert's response to the Arab League decision in Riyadh by defining it as "a positive response that opens a path to resolution of the conflict."

The big question (though its answer will not determine the future of the initiative) is what does President Bush fear more: The price of Arab oil and the Islamic quagmire in Iraq, or Jewish heavyweights and Christian proselytizers?

Assad follows Sadat

Israelis may apparently continue to sleep soundly. The prime minister sent a "calming message" to Damascus, maintaining that he has no plans to attack Syria. That took place after the chief of Military Intelligence, Major General Amos Yadlin, reported in a cabinet meeting that President Bashar Assad may take preventive steps against an action that no one has planned. Yadlin recalled that the Six-Day War began because of erroneous interpretations of the intentions of the opposite side. What the MI chief did not say (or what was not published) is that recent intelligence community chatter focuses on the resemblance of the current Syrian arena to events in another war, less successful than that of 1967.

Certain analysts, who are following Assad's progress, find a great deal of resemblance to the thought processes and behavior of then Egyptian president Anwar Sadat in the period before the Yom Kippur War. The Israeli response to his gestures or, more correctly, the Israeli lack of response, reminds them of Israel's disregard for similar messages of peace from Sadat. To reclaim Sinai, Israel was forced to go to war.

Prevailing intelligence opinion maintains that if Assad does not get the Golan Heights by peaceful means, he will attempt to follow in Sadat's footsteps. Despite popular bumper stickers, we will not be able to have peace and the Golan, for long.

A senior analyst, who does not conceal his anxiety, suggests that victims of a potential war with Syria begin to demonstrate in front of the Prime Minister's Residence. Nothing less. Perhaps, that would open ears to the sounds of voices from Damascus and make it possible to read statements made by the Syrian president, like those in an interview granted to Saudi newspaper, Al-Jazirah, two weeks ago. Assad confessed that Syria consistently initiated and took steps to promote the peace process, for years. He indirectly confirmed, for the first time, rumors of a "Swiss channel" with the participation of an American of Syrian descent, Dr. Ibrahim (Abe) Suleiman, and a former director general of the Foreign Ministry, Dr. Alon Liel. (On Thursday, Suleiman will appear before the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.) Assad mentioned "Arabs who live in the West and hold dual citizenship" who were interested in promoting the peace process.

"That delegation heard our position and conveyed it to Israel. Others came to Syria and conveyed Israel's positions to us. But in practice, there were no serious contacts."

Assad complained that he faces consistent Israeli refusal to return to the negotiating table, particularly since the Second War in Lebanon and "particularly while the current government is the weakest in Israel's history."

The interviewer asked if Syria would be forced to wage war in response to frozen negotiations regarding "unification" of the Golan Heights. "That claim is true and that is what I told senior, foreign officials," the president replied. "Timing is a critical element in the peace process. Delays heighten tension, and tension heightens extremism, and extremism forces quick solutions with high prices. We in Syria believe that peace is the easiest and fastest solution, the least costly and best way to ensure the future and stability of the region."

The Syrian president expressed sorrow regarding the lack of "imminent signs of a peace process." In his opinion, recent references to peace "remain mere words" and the coming months will reveal whether they stand a chance of implementation.

"Circumstances, during the last two years, were not rosy, but we must prepare ourselves. It is possible that the next phase is one of peace. If there is a turn to war, that will be the general choice in the region," said the Syrian president.

Assad sends this warning of an all-inclusive war to the Americans. "They think that Iraq is the entire problem and that their victory in Iraq would permit them to relinquish peace. They did not understand that, from the inception, all issues in the region are interrelated. What happens in Lebanon influences Iraq, and what happens in Iraq influences Palestine, and everything mutually influences everything else."

During the interview, Assad repeatedly refers to the next two years as a "difficult period" that may be followed by better times. It appears that he is referring to the last two years of President Bush's term.

Six years ago, after Bill Clinton permitted Ehud Barak to evade a peace agreement with Syria, Bashar Assad's father, Hafez Assad, hoped that the next president would deliver the goods. That ended with the Second LebanaonWar.