AQABA, Jordan - Last Friday, a few hours after a terrorist killed two Israeli security guards in the West Bank and helicopters chased the launchers of Qassam rockets in the Gaza Strip, a small group of young Israelis and Palestinians sat together in a hotel in Aqaba. A top Jordanian official proudly told the guests, activists of the Seeds of Peace organization, about joint economic projects benefiting all three peoples. During the break, the lecturer led me to a corner and asked, "Can you explain to me why your government is ignoring Jordan and the Arab peace initiative?" Moreover, he asked, "Don't you understand what catastrophe will befall us, both the Jordanians and the Israelis, if you do not reach an arrangement with the Palestinians this year?"
On Wednesday, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had a chance to hear the same thing from higher up. King Abdullah invited Olmert to Amman, to repeat the message of distress he had conveyed to President George W. Bush a few days earlier. You did not need to be a fly on the wall to know what was said at the royal palace. Jordanian Foreign Minister Salah Bashir, who accompanied the king on his visit to the U.S., warned Jewish activists in New York that missing the opportunity to strike a peace deal this year "will affect us all." The Jordanian officials did not mean peace between Israel and Syria.
In his book "The Much Too Promised Land," Aaron David Miller, who was deputy head of the U.S. Israeli-Palestinian peace team, writes that in the days of Yitzhak Rabin's government, the "Syria first" approach ended in deep disappointment. Under Ehud Barak, Miller claims, the same approach led both to the blocking of the Israel-Syria channel and a crisis between Israel and the Palestinians. Olmert's attempt to reopen the Syrian channel at the expense of the talks with the Palestinians will not only accomplish nothing on either front; with the long arms of Iran and Al-Qaida (a new periodical the organization published in Gaza received the blessing of Ayman al-Zawahiri) reaching every corner of the region, such a move might unsettle even the fragile peace with Jordan and Egypt and bury the Arab peace initiative.
According to briefings held by close Olmert associates, there is a race between Olmert's emissaries to Syrian President Bashar Assad and the discreet talks that Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni is holding with chief Palestinian negotiator Ahmed Qureia. Recent reports have portrayed the prime minister as a vigorous statesman without requiring him to pay a political price for it. After Washington publicly exposed the nefarious ties between Syria and North Korea, what are the odds that President Bush will remove Damascus from the "axis of evil"? It is hard to imagine that Olmert believes Assad will cut off his ties to Iran and Hezbollah as long as the U.S. is keeping him outside a locked door.
In fact, Olmert is part of a big charade being held for the upcoming visit by President Bush, patron of the Annapolis declaration: "an effort to reach an agreement by the end of 2008." The talk of an alleged breakthrough in the attempts to renew negotiations between Jerusalem and Damascus are nothing more than camouflage for a major setback in Israel's talks with the Palestinians. A deep source in the negotiations revealed this week that the disagreements between the two sides far exceed the points of agreement.
It is hard to imagine that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will be tempted to embrace the Israeli proposal, which requires the Palestinians to give up 8 percent of the West Bank (for compensation of no more than 2 percent) and to agree to Israeli sovereignty over the Holy Basin in Jerusalem, including the Old City, as well as to mere crumbs on the refugee issue (family unification for 10,000 people). All while Israel continues to enlarge outposts and add roadblocks.
When the negotiations with the Palestinians come to a noisy end, and Hamas, having obtained calm in Gaza, drives the remnants of the "two-state camp" out of the Muqata in Ramallah, the balloon of the Turkish-mediated romance with Syria will also pop loudly. The supposed negotiations in two simultaneous channels will become a case of double Israeli recalcitrance.
Assad will wave around his fruitless wooing of Olmert and the violation of the Annapolis declaration. He will call for the implementation of the Arab League's Damascus declaration from March, he will claim that the peace initiative with Israel must be reexamined, and he will demand that Egypt and Jordan adhere to the standard of making normalization with the Jewish State conditional on its withdrawal to the June 4, 1967 borders. That is the danger of which King Abdullah spoke to Bush. That is why he invited Olmert to Amman.
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