The Black Channel and the White House

As long as there are no Americans in the Israeli-Syrian story, there will never be any real progress in the negotiations between the two sides.

Peace with Syria, even at the price of returning the Golan Heights, would be good for Israel.

It is also good that Ehud Olmert now thinks so, too - even if if he was a few years late. But the loud revelations of the indirect, low-level talks between the two countries under Turkish auspices were mostly a matter of making a mountain out of a molehill.

The package was colorful and large, but inside, instead of a nice wad of bills, there were just a few meager coins. There is no peace in the Middle East without the Americans, and as long as there are no Americans in the Israeli-Syrian story, there will never be any real progress in the negotiations between the two sides.

After all, at the end of the process an American brigade is expected to report for duty on the evacuated Golan, an airborne early warning above will calm Israeli fears, and brand new weaponry will compensate Israel for the increased military risk.

Such an agreement was discussed between then president Bill Clinton and prime minister Ehud Barak in the previous round of serious talks between Israel and Syria, in 2000.

Olmert goes out of his way to ridicule the obvious relationship between the revelations of talks that started in February 2007 and the fresh allegations against him in the Talansky affair. But the investigations did not start with Talansky, and the schedule certainly reflects the desire to show a diplomatic achievement in light of his entanglement in criminal investigations. And such an agreement is certainly possible.

Olmert was already a criminal suspect in January 2007, when the then state prosecutor, Eran Shendar, ordered the police to investigate Olmert's involvement in the Bank Leumi privatization sale affair.

Under the cover of the Ankara talks, Bashir Assad built his North Korean nuclear reactor. While the talks went on, Israel bombed the reactor and has continued to keep the operation under strict censorship - like the Syrians - which raises doubts as to the true meaning of the peace process seemingly represented by the talks.

The defense establishment, which refuses media requests to lift the censorship, still warns that the threat is still high of an escalation to the point of war with Syria, and thus broadcasts its lack of faith in the chances of the talks' success. Either the intelligence branch pretends to know that Assad is not serious about peace, or the IDF - which supports peace with Syria in return for the Golan - knows Olmert is not serious.

The acceptance of Israel is not exactly what the Arabs want, but they acknowledge that it is the price to be paid for moving closer to the U.S. The brokers of the secret preliminary talks could be any other country, Romania or Morocco with the Egyptians, Norway with the PLO; or the contacts can be direct as with Jordan. But the talks will not bear fruit unless they receive the approval of the U.S. administration and Congress.

At the end of every tunnel shines the White House. In the Syrian case the process is particularly difficult to comprehend, since the talks have gone from the main road to a back alley. For almost the entire previous decade, official delegations from the countries, chiefs of staff and finally the prime minster with the foreign minister all met - and all under American patronage.

Turkey is a problematic broker, and not only because it has nothing of value to pay off the sides. The Bush administration has never forgiven Turkey for ruining its attack plans for Iraq in the spring of 2003, when Turkey would not allow a U.S. armored division to invade from the northeast.

True, the Americans found an alternative, parachuting in a brigade, which linked up with the Kurds and tied down an Iraqi division. But the Americans still carry the scar, which hurts every time the Turks make their excursions into Iraqi Kurdistan.

Retired general Joseph Ralston, who worked in 2006-2007 to bridge between the Turkish needs to fight the Kurdish PKK underground and the American aspirations to stabilize a new Iraq - which would include a strong Kurdish region - gave up and retired.

He never talked with the PKK. The group is as unacceptable as Hamas and Hezbollah. At the beginning of the decade Ralston held a double role: the commander of NATO and the commander of EUCOM, the U.S. European Command which included responsibility for Israel, Turkey, Syria and Lebanon.

Later, as a result of the Iraq war, Syria and Lebanon were transfered to the responsibility of CENTCOM, the Central Command.

The change contributed to a new way of looking at the Middle East, as a region where the Arab-Israeli and Palestinian-Israeli conflicts are important but not central. The illusion was weakened by believing that a solution to the two conflicts - even at Israel's expense - would satisfy such bitter American enemies as Al-Qaida and Iran.

General Martin Dempsey, deputy commander of CENTCOM, visited Lebanon two weeks ago and met with the commander of the Lebanese Army, Michel Sleiman. The choice of Sleiman as president is considered a Syrian victory, and proves the Americans' inability to prevent the strengthening of the Hezbollah.

Turning the secret contacts between Israel and Syria into open talks did not impress the incoming commander of CENTCOM, General David Petraeus, now the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq. He is examining the Syrians in light of the Iranian, Lebanese and Iraqi situations: from Baghdad it looks quite different.

Petraeus spoke quite firmly in his testimony last week in the Senate Armed Services Committee against Syrian (and Iranian) nuclear ambitions, and against the Syrian aid to U.S. enemies in Iraq.

So how can we encourage Syrian-Israeli peace, Petraeus was asked? By defeating the Syrian-backed extremist groups, he answered, and by stopping the anti-American propaganda spread in the region by the Syrian regime.