The Israel-Syria track: opportunity or distraction?

 I had a call today from a pro-peace process activist who expressed cautious excitement about what he termed “new hope for progress” on the Israeli-Syrian front (see this week’s Jewish Week editorial here).

As JTA reported, Presidents Conference executive vice president Malcolm Hoenlein met with Syrian president Bashar Assad last week, and the Israeli press has been full of rumors that the Jewish leader carried a private message from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Late last month, President Obama exercised his “recess appointment” power and selected a new U.S. ambassador to Syria; we haven’t had one since 2005, when Washington pulled out its ambassador after the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Harari.

Is something afoot?

I doubt it, other than the usual use of Syria as a distraction when Israel-Palestinian talks go off the tracks.

For Israeli leaders, refocusing on Syria and making noises about how this time there really may be a breakthrough is a handy way to deflect attention from the latest breakdown in Israeli-Palestinian talks, or – possibly more importantly – to short circuit expected U.S. pressure to resume those talks.

For Washington, offering tantalizing but wispy hints of movement on the Syrian front is a time-tested way to send a message to the Arab and Muslim worlds that Washington is still engaged, still actively seeking routes to peace even if Israeli-Palestinian talks are in the deep freeze.

It’s no accident that just about every time we hear rumors of secret negotiations with Syria or a new willingness of its leaders to talk seriously about peace, it comes in the wake of new setbacks on the Israeli-Palestinian front, or when an Israeli leader worries that Washington is getting fed up with all sides in the complex regional dispute.

I’m not saying looking for openings on the Syria track is a bad thing; far from it. Achieving an eventual Israeli-Syrian deal is in many ways a lot easier than finding a workable solution to the West Bank, far easier than dealing with Gaza. A settlement with Syria could end or severely limit the Hezbollah threat and cut into Iran’s influence. Isolating Syria has produced almost no results, so why not talk?

There’s a compelling logic to pressing forward on the Syrian-Israeli track and dealing with Assad – who, as Ha’aretz columnist Aluf Benn notes today, seems to be “the most successful diplomat in the Middle East.”

But we’ve seen this pattern too many times before to get too excited. The bottom line here is still the same; Israeli and Syrian leaders are skilled at talking the talk about peace, but we’ve seen precious few indications they’re ready to walk the walk.

About the Author
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.