George W. Bush is learning that being Israel s friend doesn t necessarily mean that Israel agrees with your policies. Just days after the US President likened people who advocate talking to “radicals and terrorists to appeasers of Nazi Germany, Israel publicly acknowledged it s been talking indirectly with Syria, a state Mr. Bush views as part of the “axis of evil. As if that weren t bad enough for Washington, Israel followed that announcement with one announcing progress in its contacts with Hezbollah regarding the release of two soldiers held captive since the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war. (Watch for one soon on talks with Hamas about a truce.)
Contrary to conventional wisdom, there s more latitude than one might think in Israel-US relations. Where the red lines are drawn depends on who the two countries respective leaders are.
It would be an understatement to say that events in the Middle East haven t reflected success in Mr. Bush s “war on terror and his democratization agenda. For Israel, these two policy principles amounted to a red light on talks with Syria that ended inconclusively in 2000 and which Israel s Ehud Olmert has been interested in reviving. But once their year-long, indirect contacts in Ankara had progressed to concurrent rather than sequential visits of delegations, Syria demanded publicity of the Syria-Israel talks. Mr. Olmert told Mr. Bush that he d shoulder the political price, whatever the results. Mr. Bush said, “suit yourself, and the shrug sufficed for the Israeli leader.
Mr. Bush isn t the first US president to be surprised by Israel this way. In 1993, secret Israeli-PLO peace talks unfolded in Oslo while the US-sponsored Madrid process was under way. In 1977, Israeli-Egyptian peace talks began in earnest to avert a US-Soviet initiative that Israel felt would be inimical to its interests. In both cases, the United States was needed to clinch the deal, but it came to the table once the process between the parties had ripened.
For the United States, its regional interests don t always coincide with Israel s actions, and it has acted accordingly. In the closing stages of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when Israel was ready to encircle the Egyptian Third Army and march into Cairo, US president Richard Nixon and secretary of state Henry Kissinger stopped Israeli troops in their tracks, thereby allowing Egyptian president Anwar Sadat to save face even in defeat (a key enabling factor for Egypt-Israel peace talks four years later). Then, during the 1991 Gulf War, Washington warned Israel not to get involved – in spite of suffering direct hits by Iraqi Scud missiles – because this would have split the US-Arab anti-Iraq coalition. In both cases, Israel s leaders, Golda Meir and Yitzhak Shamir, endured public criticism but wouldn t cross the United States. And in both cases, their decision ultimately yielded Israel strategic gains.
But the case of Syria is especially complicated. The Bush administration views Syria as undesirably involved in Lebanon, as unscrupulously linked to a dangerous Iran and as unwarrantedly demanding that talks with Israel lead to talks with Washington. While former US negotiator Dennis Ross views negotiations with an adversary as a means to trying to change threatening behavior, that s not how Mr. Bush sees them. To his officials, such talks are a reward that comes only after behavior is changed.
When it comes to Syria, Mr. Olmert has made the shift: “It s better in this situation to speak rather than to shoot, he said last week. Mr. Olmert knows that active American involvement is necessary for the talks to be productive but he calculates that this can wait for a new administration.
Of course Israel has its own complications. Unlike the West Bank, where the majority of Israelis are prepared to relinquish most of the occupied territory for peace, when it comes to the Golan Heights, the reverse is true.
Mr. Olmert is counting on the fact that a serious peace deal will turn this tide, but he may not have the time. He is fending off calls to step down from coalition partners and the opposition over allegations of receiving campaign money illegally. Israelis suspect he s playing one agenda against the other. And why not? They ve seen this before: In 2005, Ariel Sharon announced his bold disengagement from Gaza while financial mismanagement of his election campaigns was being investigated by police.
Still, even if he s forced to resign early, by talking to Syria, Mr. Olmert is establishing a new threshold for both the next US president and his own successor in Jerusalem.
Mr. Bush s undying support for Israel has led to him often being described as Israel s “best friend ever. Ironically, it s been the Israeli Prime Minister who has had to create a little more distance between them.
Shira Herzogis a columnist with the Canadian Globe and Mail and divides her time between Toronto and Tel Aviv. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at www.commongroundnews.org.