The Syrian-American Rift

As the U.S. congressional elections approach, thousands of party activists are shuttling between synagogues and Evangelical churches, competing with their pro-Israel declarations to garner votes and money. But as of next Tuesday, the rules of the political game in Washington will change: In come the political advisers seeking to rescue Client Number One from the Iraqi vale of tears. James Baker, Bush Sr.'s secretary of state, is expected to present Bush Jr. with a plan detailing an escape from the quagmire.

Edward Djerejian, who heads the James Baker Institute for Public Policy and is involved in drafting the plan, has said in private conversations that the document will recommend Bush lift the boycott on Syria and advance Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Djerejian, who was American ambassador to both Syria and Israel, has maintained close relations with the regime in Damascus. He wrote in the last issue of Foreign Affairs: "Syria poses both a danger and an opportunity. The [Bashar] Assad regime could undermine security arrangements in southern Lebanon, hinder progress in Iraq and continue to support Hezbollah, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and radicals in Hamas. But it could also play a constructive role in the region - a possibility that has yet to be fully explored. The Bush administration's engagement with the Syrians from 2003 to 2005 left both sides frustrated. Washington felt that Damascus offered too little too late, and Damascus felt that Washington constantly increased its demands and refused to be satisfied.

"Since Syria facilitates Hezbollah's access to arms and money, any sustainable solution in southern Lebanon would require Syria to be on board. Given Syria's historically special relationship with Lebanon, Damascus would not countenance a separate deal between Beirut and Jerusalem, and so the Israeli-Lebanese and the Israeli-Syrian negotiating tracks will have to proceed in parallel."

Another person who does not support America's anti-Assad policy is Djerejian's boss, Baker. And according to the Sunday New York Times, these two retirees have quite a few partners in the White House and the State Department. Among those allegedly advocating direct negotiations between Israel and Syria are two senior advisers: J.D. Crouch, the hawkish deputy national security advisor, and David Welch, the assistant secretary of state for Middle East affairs. Welch was an active partner in formulating UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which ended the war in Lebanon this summer.

Exactly 15 years ago today, President George H.W. Bush accepted Baker's recommendation and sat Yitzhak Shamir down with Hafez Assad's delegation to the Madrid conference, following the first Gulf war. Now it is up to Baker and Crouch to convince his son that appeasing Syria could save the remnants of his honor. They believe reopening the American-Syrian-Israeli political track might stop terrorists from passing from Syria into Iraq, where they operate against American troops, as well as arms from passing from Iran to Hezbollah via Syria. The supporters of reforming policy toward Syria say using the stick merely pushes Syria into the arms of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, to say nothing of extremist anti-American elements in Iraq.

The new voices in Washington have not gone unnoticed by Assad. In response, he has given conciliatory interviews to the international media and promised western emissaries that he would open a public diplomacy campaign. The Syrian leader is waiting for the U.S. president to clarify that so long as he, Bush, is in power, there is no significance to the declaration by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that, so long as he, Olmert, is in power, the Golan Heights will remain part of Israel. Only if Bush accepts his advisers' recommendation to open the diplomatic channel and risk - as his father did - a confrontation with the Israeli government and its friends in the Jewish establishment and the Christian Right - as happened in 1992 - will it be possible to know what Assad would do to get back the Golan Heights. Would he send Khaled Meshal to find a new refuge? Would his line be busy when Hassan Nasrallah calls to find out why the container carrying Katyushas from Tehran is stuck in Syrian customs?

Lieberman will feel at home

High school students asked to write about the plan of deputy prime minister Avigdor Lieberman to redraw the Green Line to rid Israel proper of several thousand Arabs will not understand the assignment. In their textbooks, the maps do not note the June 4, 1967 lines. There is no border between Qalqilyah and Kfar Sava. Baka al-Sharkiyeh and Baka al-Gharbiyeh belong to the same State of Israel.

Education Minister Yuli Tamir is busy reforming the schools, and doesn't have the patience to deal with little things like making the pupils aware of the Green Line. This line only becomes interesting when talking about the Palestinians. The Web site of the Israel Defense Forces' military intelligence branch has a plethora of maps from the textbooks of our neighbors, depicting greater Palestine. Tamir has promised to look into the issue.

In the field as well, the Green Line is gradually disappearing, right under the noses of the Peace Now graduates. Lieberman suggests compensating the Palestinians for the settlement blocs that would be annexed to Israel by giving them parts of the Triangle and Wadi Ara - along with their residents - in return. The Olmert-Peretz government is continuing the tradition of the Barak and Sharon governments, which took Palestinian land without offering compensation. Under the cover of the northern West Bank disengagement, the separation fence "annexed" the Shahak industrial park, which lies on the seam line directly west of Jenin.

There, you will not find a single sign that you are over the Green Line, and visitors at the Shomron regional council Web site will discover the annexation is not only de facto but also in principle. It states that the park, which covers 8,000 dunams, is a joint enterprise of the Shomron regional council - which is in the West Bank - and the Katsir-Harish regional council, which is within the Green Line. The park board chair is Bentzi Lieberman, who heads the Shomron regional council and helps lead the Yesha council of settlements.

The site also states the park will provide employment opportunities for residents of the neighboring towns of Hadera, Afula and Pardes Hannah. It does not state that the dirty work is done by Palestinians cut off from the West Bank by the separation fence. The park offers fantastic conditions for entrepreneurs - development area A, free land for a limited period, low construction costs and property tax discounts. May the Labor Party heads take note as they fondly recall the heritage of Yitzhak Rabin next week, who promised to change the order of priorities in dividing up the national cake and who ended the bonanza of special benefits for the settlements.

The Defense Minister's Bureau stated that the Shahak industrial zone enjoys similar conditions to those of other industrial parks in the West Bank, which do not pay leasing fees. This means that the Labor Party's presence in the government has not changed the status of industrial parks beyond the Green Line, including those on the other side of the separation fence. The statement added that since Peretz's tenure began, no development permits have been granted to the Shahak park. Bentzi Lieberman does not need favors from Peretz. His files are bursting with permits.

It is important that the Labor Party remain in the government, in part because it wants to retain Minister Eitan Cabel's influence over public broadcasting. The heads of the Yesh Din human rights association, which aided Palestinian olive harvesters, learned this week about the extent of Cabel's influence over the Second Authority broadcasts. Director Motti Sklar initially opposed the use of the term "West Bank" in a Yesh Din advertisement about the High Court ruling on freedom to harvest olives. Later he would not allow the ad to address a military commander directly, saying that settlers would then seek to use the radio to call on commanders not to evacuate outposts.

As if to stress the need for the Yesh Din ad, activists from Rabbis for Human Rights reported that after a Molotov cocktail was thrown at a settler from Elon Moreh (she was not hurt), the battalion commander blocked all residents of nearby Kfar Salem from reaching their olive groves next to the settlement.