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Misgivings on the Road to Damascus

June 5, 2008 By:
Jonathan Tobin
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When you live in a dangerous neighborhood, having big, strong friends is a must. But what happens when you disagree with that friend over something important?

The dilemma that is always faced by small nations that come to depend on larger friends is a delicate one. Even when such friendships are built upon a solid foundation of common values, such as those shared by the United States and Israel, sovereign nations are bound to find themselves marching in different directions from time to time.

That's the situation that Israel has recently found itself in as its government has pursued negotiations with Syria, despite the fact that the United States had signaled its displeasure with that move.

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Syria is viewed in Washington as a junior member of the "Axis of Evil" club, along with its ally, Iran. As a client of Tehran and a family-run dictatorship, the Damascus regime is a nasty piece of work. Syria's troublemaking in both Iraq (where it has served as a conduit for the insurgents) and Lebanon have marked it for isolation by the Bush administration.

Lebanon is particularly disappointing to the Americans since the forced pullout of Syrian troops, who occupied the nation since the 1970s, was an event that Washington could point to as one of its few post Sept. 11 triumphs.

Unfortunately, the Syrians have rebounded since the "Cedar revolution" that followed their assassination of Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. With the aid of the Hezbollah terrorists, the Syrians have been able to thwart those Lebanese who thought they were on the verge of finally breaking free from domination by Damascus.

At the same time, international efforts to force Iran to end its drive to attain a nuclear capability have stalled.

So the news that America's one loyal ally in the region was now reaching out to Syria was not well-received in Washington.

The "land for peace" formula that would have Israel trade the strategic Golan Heights in return for diplomatic relations, and normalization of relations has been on the table for decades. What's new is that Israel now also hopes to detach Syria from Iran's sphere of influence.

Though the talks were being facilitated by Turkey, there were few indications that Damascus was seriously contemplating a future in which they would join the ranks of Arab "moderates," and face the wrath of both Iran and Hezbollah.

While the United States made no public fuss over the indirect negotiations with Syria, the word out of Washington was that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's timing was far from helpful to the goal of isolating Iran and its allies.

For those wondering what would happen if progress in talks with Syria resulted in an open dispute between Jerusalem and Washington, the answer is: We'll probably never know.

Aside from the fact that the Syrians are themselves probably not serious (Assad needs the conflict with Israel to justify his despotic minority rule regime more than he needs the Golan), there is the fact that Olmert himself is almost certainly on the way out. Indeed, the allegations of ethical misdeeds that have rendered his attempt to hold on to power an increasingly dismaying spectacle led many Israelis to believe he authorized the talks in an effort to distract the public from the scandals.

But even if this initiative is doomed to failure, that still leaves us pondering the question of what the obligations of the United States and Israel are to each other.

Given that both countries want to see Islamist states like Iran defeated, and that they both see peace between Israel and its neighbors as a strategic imperative, such disputes ought to be rare. But even in the closest of friendships between nations, the interests of the two are not always identical.

As much as every president (and would-be president) speaks of Israel's security as the starting point of U.S. foreign policy in the region, most of the disputes that have come up between the two countries have been a matter of the Americans trying to push peace deals the Israelis might not think are prudent.

At such moments, Israeli leaders have been forced to weigh the obligation to defend their national interests against the need to never allow any daylight between their positions and those of the Americans. Thus, every Israeli government has, at times, been prepared to say no to American entreaties. For all of its dependence on U.S. support and military aid, Israel is an independent nation, not a client state.

But what has happened under Olmert has been something entirely new. Though American supporters of Israel reflexively fear that the Syrian talks or the current round of futile negotiations with the Palestinian Authority is the result of U.S. pressure, virtually no one in the know in either Washington or Jerusalem believes that these are the result of Bush or Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice strong-arming Olmert. Rather, it's Olmert who has forced the Americans to follow along.

In the case of Syria, there was good reason for the Americans to be perturbed. At a time when the United States is seeking to bring maximum pressure on such regimes, Israel's opening worked against that goal.

Olmert may have believed the reported Israeli destruction of a Syrian nuclear site last September as a good reason to talk to Assad while he was still smarting. But the Americans view that episode in the larger context of Iranian and North Korean nuclear proliferation. Since the Israelis themselves see the threat from a nuclear Iran as the No. 1 strategic problem their nation faces, freelancing on that front is probably a blunder.

The point is, if Jerusalem is going to talk about being on the frontline of the Western democracies battle against Islamism, they need to take the broader interests of that war into consideration. Like the Olmert government's disastrous failure against Hezbollah, which surprised and disappointed its U.S. friends, the Syria initiative was a needless irritant to the alliance.

But that doesn't mean they didn't have the right to do it.

Just as when the situation was reversed and the United States pushed Israel into pointless peace talks, there are times when Israel can -- and indeed, must -- assert its sovereign rights.

If an Israeli government sees a genuine opportunity for peace, it is absurd for the United States, which has tried many times to orchestrate Israeli concessions for peace deals with the Palestinians that were just as ill-conceived as the current Syrian talks to cry foul. No American has the right to "save Israel from itself," whether the policy it is attempting to impose mandates talks or opposes them.

No amount of American aid requires any Israeli leader to sacrifice citizens' lives in order to win favor with the White House. But the same principle applies when it is the Israelis who want to take a chance, even if their reasoning is just as foolish.

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