07 May 2007 - Syria, the U.S., and Israel
Ha’aretz reports that Israel is preparing to renew talks with Syria. If so, that would indicate that the U.S. has probably given the green light to Israel to talk to Syria, on the heels of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s interaction with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem in Iraq last week. This would represent a reversal of America’s earlier stance against Israeli talks with the Assad regime.
It would be really fascinating to know exactly what is going on between the U.S., Israel and Syria at the moment. I don’t for a moment believe that Nancy Pelosi’s visit last month led to a thaw; on the contrary, the Assad regime seems to be exploiting her trip to defend its hard-line stance, as well as manipulating the event for maximum propaganda value in brainwashing the Syrian people.
But something serious is in the works, and I think students of international relations would gain more insight into the U.S.-Israel relationship from studying the Syria track than they would from looking at America’s role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or at American domestic politics (which unfortunately seem to be the common, conspiratorial terms of reference in foreign policy analysis lately).
Let’s look at the interests at stake. Israel’s fundamental interest is in containing Syria along its western border with Israel and Lebanon. By contrast, America’s fundamental interest is in securing Syria’s eastern boundary with Iraq. And the Assad regime’s fundamental interest is to stay in power, whether by cooperating with the Iranian regime, the Americans, the Israelis and whomever else it needs to.
When the U.S. first told Israel not to negotiate with Syria, I wondered why. It now seems that the Bush administration may have been worried that the U.S. would have less bargaining power if Israel cut a deal on the western boundary before it could arrange an agreement on the eastern side. That danger exists because once Assad has a bargain in the bag he might feel secure enough not to negotiate further.
So it would appear that the U.S. was not against talks with Syria as such, but that it wanted to lead those talks to make sure its own interests were protected first and foremost. The disagreement between the U.S. and Syria in recent months has not been a clash over principles but a classic wrangle between allies over priorities. And in the end, the more powerful partner won—as, invariably, it always does.
But there is something else going on here. I think that the Bush administration is not just asserting America’s leadership on the Syrian track, but in Israeli-Arab issues more generally. And I think this has been Bush’s goal since the beginning. The younger Bush is certainly more pro-Israel than his father was, for various reasons. But he is as determined to exert control over the U.S.-Israel relationship.
Bush is frequently attacked for adopting a “hands-off” approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the opposite of Bill Clinton’s energetic involvement. But that criticism misses the mark. Bush was the first U.S. president to call for a Palestinian state; he has also produced a number of peace plans aimed at ending the conflict. His lack of direct involvement is the result of Palestinian terror, not pro-Israel bias.
In addition, there is some evidence to suggest that Bush wants to undermine the so-called “Israel lobby” while courting its public support. Some have suggested that the Bush administration deliberately outed Pentagon officials who were considered too close to AIPAC; indeed, the prosecutions in the Pentagon-AIPAC cases seem to be proceeding with unusual zeal. Bush wants an “Israel lobby” that knows its place.
And so the canard that American foreign policy is dictated by Israel is, once again, shown to be false. It is true that the U.S. and Israel share a close relationship, one based on shared values and interests. But far from kowtowing to Israel or its U.S. supporters, Bush has set out to control America’s relations with Israel more tightly than ever before. He has succeeded precisely because of the perception that he is more pro-Israel than any of his predecessors. But he is pro-America above all.