According to 29-year CIA veteran and former NSC official Bruce Riedel, Wednesday's announcement of joint peace negotiations between Israel and Syria revealed President Bush's diminished standing in Middle East affairs.
"Think of the irony," Riedel said. "George Bush goes to Jerusalem last week. He gives an impassioned speech about never dealing with nasty regimes [that sponsor terror]. He basically says 'don't make agreements that appease [them].' And less than a week later, the Israeli government announces it is engaged in peace negotiations with the Assad dictatorship in Syria. We're talking about a rather distasteful regime that likely had a hand in the murder of [former Lebanese Prime Minister] Rafik Hariri. I guess [Israeli Prime Minister] Ehud Olmert didn't think the speech was meant for him."
Riedel, who served as a special assistant to the president until 2002 and is now with the Brookings Institution, said the lack of weight accorded to Bush's appeasement speech "shows more and more that the Middle East is not listening to him anymore, as does the deal announced in Doha for Lebanon today." In that Doha agreement, the Iranian-supported Hezbollah secured effective veto power within Lebanon's next cabinet -- an arrangement that is sure to frustrate any future efforts to disarm the political party that the U.S. considers a terrorist organization.
Turkey's mediation of Israel-Syria talks has been "an open secret" in the region for the last month, according to Riedel. "A lot of very serious Israeli thinkers have felt for some time that the Syria agreement could be a strategic way to break out of the logjam that Israel is in," he said. "There's no holy Jerusalem to contend with, no refugees. It's a simple land for peace swap, and everyone knows what the price is: 100 percent return of the Golan Heights, in return for which they would get a full agreement with Syria. ... If this works, it would demonstrate that negotiating with Assad's Syria can produce serious and important results for a democracy like Israel."
But not all observers are that optimistic. Independent analyst and Israeli political adviser Dahlia Scheindlin cites a recent report by the War and Peace Index that suggests Israelis are more willing to consider a compromise over certain areas in Jerusalem than they are likely to approve of any deal with Syria that involves relinquishing the Golan.
According to that study, only 19 percent of Israelis support the idea of giving up the Golan, while 40 percent are willing to consider giving up Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem. "It's sort of counter-intuitive and surprising," Scheindlin said, "you wouldn't think it would be quite so emotional. But the Golan has been annexed for so long, it now feels like part of Israel. The people who live there are considered regular Israelis, not settlers. Also, they've been through this many times before. Talks start and end faster than you can say 'jackrabbit.' So there's a lot of cynicism. While this story is leading the news today, it could easily be gone tomorrow."