Yesterday could not have presented a more stunning portrayal of the self-marginalization of America as an actor in Israeli-Arab conflict resolution under the Bush administration.
On the Israeli-Palestinian front the president was hosting PLO Chair Mahmoud Abbas at the White House while the real action was taking place in Cairo where the Egyptians and Hamas leadership were announcing a new ceasefire proposal for Gaza. There is little doubt as to which event was more relevant to future stability and creating a security environment conducive to it. In the international, and certainly Israeli press, the Cairo development took center-stage while the Abbas-Bush hug-in was very much a side-show.
The more head-lining grabbing event in Washington yesterday was the testimony to the Senate and House intelligence committees and media briefs by US intelligence officials regarding the Israeli strike on a Syrian facility in September '07 and North Korean involvement in that facility.
The US decided to give that briefing despite Israeli objections, in particular from the Israeli security establishment as reported in today's Haaretz:
Defense Minister Ehud Barak opposed the release of any new details on the attack or the nuclear ties between Damascus and Pyongyang, arguing that this would only push the Syrians into a corner and would escalate tensions.
Of course those briefings are the prerogative of the administration, and Congress had the right to demand such disclosures. But the subtext to this story is another, perhaps more remarkable, example of the Bush administration being an obstacle to, rather than promoter of, Arab-Israeli peace.
Yesterday's intelligence briefing happened due to unrelenting neocon pressure from Congress led by Representatives Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Peter Hoekstra, from elements within the administration and in particular from recently retired officials, with John Bolton riding herd.
Their apparent aim was a two-fer: undermine the North Korea six party talks and undermine any prospect of renewed Israeli-Syrian peace talks--mirroring the agenda of the Israeli right wing opposition (old buddies of the neocons). On this score there was little to worry about--the Bush administration is now seen in both Jerusalem and Damascus as the main obstacle to a resumption of peace negotiations. To get Israel and Syria to agree on this is quite an achievement.
Here is what President Assad said in an interview to Qatari daily al-Watan, published Thursday:
[Turkish PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan had] 'relayed to me Israel's readiness to withdraw from the Golan Heights in return for peace with Syria [. . .]direct negotiations need a sponsor and, unfortunately, this sponsor can only be the U.S. This is the reality of the situation. But the current administration has no vision and no will to support a peace process [. . .] perhaps with a future administration in the U.S., we would be able to speak of direct negotiations.
Israeli Prime Minister Olmert would of course not directly criticize President Bush--but here is what Israel's top political commentators, well-briefed by the PM's office, are saying:
[. . .] it is almost certain that the negotiations will not be renewed in the near future--at least not until the next tenant takes up residence in the White House in January 2009 and sponsors an initiative to revitalize the negotiations with American patronage and financial support. (Shimon Shiffer, Yedioth Ahronoth,4/24/08)
Is there or is there not a channel of negotiations with Syria? Olmert merely hints at who, at this stage, is preventing such a dialogue. His name is George W. Bush. When will it be possible for Israel to talk to Syria? When Bush leaves the White House [. . .] when Washington gives the green light (Ben Caspit, Ma'ariv, 4/18/08)
Almost all the Israeli security establishment supports rapprochement with Syria--the Defense Minister, Chief of Staff, Head of Intelligence, etc.
In fact, yesterday was a rather telling day from several angles. Representative Gary Ackerman chaired a House FRC Middle East hearing: "U.S. Policy and the Road to Damascus: Who's Converting Whom?"
Martin Indyk--director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings and former US Ambassador to Israel--was one of those providing testimony. Said Indyk:
As I understand it, the Bush Administration is unwilling to encourage Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations [. . .] this puts the U.S. in the unprecedented and invidious position of opposing an opportunity for Arab-Israeli peacemaking even when our ally Israel is keen to pursue it.
Of course, now in year seven, the Bush administration has launched one peace effort - the Israeli-Palestinian Annapolis process. But that has all the appearances of a sham - no delivery on the ground to speak of, exclusion of key actors (such as Hamas), and nothing serious being done to create the conditions to implement anything even if a paper is agreed on.
Will Bush's successor be a promoter of or an obstacle to Arab-Israeli conflict resolution and peace-making, and, just as important, will that successor act in year one or wait for year seven?