Posted by Joshua on Sunday, December 17th, 2006
JERUSALEM, Dec. 17 (UPI) — Israel's cabinet was divided Sunday over Syrian President Bashar Assad's call to return to the negotiating table.
In an interview with the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, Assad urged a renewal of peace negotiations with Israel, saying Damascus would cooperate with Washington to resolve regional issues.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem added an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights was no longer a precondition for talks, Israel's YNet News reported.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told the cabinet he stood by his stance that, before opening negotiations, Israel expected Syria to renounce terrorism and stop supporting "extremist influences," such as Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal.
In contrast, Defense Minister Amir Peretz called on the cabinet to hold an emergency discussion about Assad's and Moallem's comments.
He said talking with Syria could improve the countries' relations and weaken Syria's ties to Hezbollah.
"Every agreement comes with a price tag, and in the Syrian context the price is clear," Peretz said. "The question is whether it is strategically important for us to disconnect Syria from the radical axis and prevent it from cooperating with Hezbollah.
Prime minister tells cabinet Israel should refrain from talks with Syria at this point in time, as not to go against the United States' stance regarding Damascus
Olmert continues to stand by his stance that the conditions for talks with Syria have not yet matured.
"The question that should be asked is why Assad made these declarations after the Baker report was published in Washington, after (President George W.) Bush made a strong statement on the matter, and when the entire international community demands that the Syrians stop their war mongering and acts against the Siniora government in Lebanon ," the PM stated.
Olmert told his cabinet he doubts talks with Syria would be the wise step to take at a time when the international community was pushing for pressuring Khaled Mashaal in Syria.
However, what apparently stands behind Olmert's reluctance to accept Syria's overtures for dialogue are United States pressures. At the cabinet meeting, Olmert asked whether now was a good time for Israel to express views that go against those of the American president, while Bush is engaged in hard internal-political battles, as well as wars in Iraq and other places.
'Question is what Israel gets from Syria'
Olmert reminded the ministers that the US was Israel's most important ally, and that the state has a strategic relationship with it.
"The question is not what we give to Assad – Barak and Bibi made him offers in the past – but what Israel gets in return. Can Israel, under today's circumstances, disconnect Syria from Iran? Can we stop Syria's support for Hamas? Before we respond and formulate our policy we should weigh these things with caution," he said.
Vice Premier Shimon Peres also referred to Israel's friendship with the United States, "Which protects us from all threats," and wondered whether Israel would be right to operate against the American stance, "In order for the Syrian president to escape the trouble he's in."
Haaretz: writes, "Aides to Netanyahu emphasized yesterday that Syria needs a peace agreement with Israel no less, and possibly more, than Israel needs a peace agreement with Syria. They stressed that Netanyahu has not changed his position that Israel must remain in the Golan Heights no matter what."
Can Syria Help?
Should Bush talk to Syria? Interview with Joshua Landis Dec. 16, 2006
Aljazeera.net – Qatar, Adla Massoud in New York
Joshua Landis believes the Bush administration will simply not budge on the issue. Many in Washington feel that we're not going to go back – as the Hamilton-Baker report recommended - to dealing with dictators. Condoleezza Rice's position in dealing with Syria is that for 60 years we made a mistake in believing that supporting the status quo and dealing with dictators creates stability. She has said this is a "false stability" and we're not going to do it again. And I think there are a number of vital elements of this administration that believe that it's an important principle to cling to….
The Syria Gambit
Does the regime of Bashar al-Assad hold the key to America's problems in the Middle East? Some in Washington like to think so, but they are probably wrong.
By Christopher Dickey
Newsweek International (Selected quotes)
"Syria is on a roll," concedes Jonathan Paris, a fellow at Washington's Hudson Institute and a frequent critic of Damascus. "As in the '90s, Syria is seen as the indispensable player."
There's even hope that Damascus can be seduced away from Iran, countering its hegemonic ambitions in the greater Middle East. "Syria is a key partner," says Syrian political scientist Marwan Kabalan, "in all these regional issues."
the government-controlled daily Al Baath warned last week that if the Bush administration fails to engage Syria, "it will continue to wallow and sink in the quagmire and the situation in the region and the world will continue to be subjected to upheavals and instability."
Jonathan Paris points out, Syria thrives on the level of unrest that exists right now. "If you were Bashar, the one thing you would be afraid of is regional stability," says Paris, "because then Syria's 19 million people would ask why they are ruled by this clique of 15 or so who run the country like it is their own bank."
"America has two different options," says Syrian author and political analyst Sami Moubayed. "Either they deal with Syria, while excluding Iran, or vice versa. Dealing with both is impossible and dealing with neither is also impossible."
The only hope of marshaling the same kind of pressure on Syria is to nail the Assad regime in a United Nations-backed tribunal investigating the Valentine's Day massacre of ex-prime minister Rafik Hariri and bystanders in Beirut last year, and the other high-profile killings since. That's what the five Lebanese ministers in the Grand Serail are holding out for. And that is precisely why they've been put under siege by Hizbullah and other Syrian allies trying to destroy altogether the government of Prime Minister Fuad Siniora. "Political assassination is very, very common in Lebanon," says Ahmad Fatfat, one of the ministers in the Serail. "We need the tribunal to stop this. If we cannot succeed in this project, it is impossible to preserve our democracy."
Indeed, if they cannot succeed, it may be impossible to preserve the shreds of the Bush administration's policies in the Middle East. But the Assad regime, so good at spoiling, so good at surviving, is likely to go on.
David Ignatius in the Washington Post: Is this Syrian gambit for real? Is Moallem serious in his offer to talk with America about a comprehensive package of peace with Israel, stability for Iraq and compromise in Lebanon? The answer is that there’s really only one way to find out, which is to explore further the ideas the Syrian foreign minister has put on the table.
President Bashar Assad will visit Moscow on Monday to discuss the Lebanon, Iraq and Palestinian crises as Russia seeks to restore its role as a key actor in the Middle East.
Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin will examine "means to resolve the crises." The three-day mission comes hot on the heels of a Moscow visit by Prime Minister Fouad Saniora.
Saniora met Putin on Friday in a bid to have Moscow pressure Syria over the political unrest, seen by his government as a Damascus-backed coup bid. The visit came amid EU warnings for Iran and Syria not to meddle in Lebanon.
According to Posukhov, Moscow supports the establishment of an international tribunal but Putin will seek to reassure Assad that it "not be used as a means of pressure on Syria".
Russian press reports said that Russia was seeking to restore its role as a key actor in the Middle East following the collapse of the former Soviet Union.
"Syria is a key country in the region … It is not possible to resolve the situation in Iraq without contacts with Damascus," wrote Fedor Lukianov, editor-in-chief of Russia in Global Politics.
"Russia wants to reserve the role of privileged interlocutor of Bashar Assad," he wrote.
On the economic front, the Russian diplomat in Damascus said that Syria and Russia aim to double their two-trade from the current level of some 300 million dollars a year. Moscow remains Syria's main arms supplier.
…. A far more genuine American commitment to Lebanon would focus on helping the parties to come up with a reasonable formula to redress the under-representation of Shiites in the power structure while getting greater government control over Hezbollah's war-making capacity.
Make no mistake: Hezbollah is no friend to America. As a former United States intelligence officer, I know there are a few accounts yet to be settled with that organization. But Washington will never achieve its objectives in the Middle East — including its obligation to ensure Israel's long-term security — unless it puts emotions aside and deals realistically with facts on the ground. Like it or not, Hezbollah is one of those facts. A less-than-pliable but strong government in Lebanon would be far preferable to no real government at all, which is what we have now.
As the nation rushes headlong towards civil war, Robert Fisk, who has lived in Beirut for 30 years, picks through the city's reckage to identify the agitators, military leaders and politicians who now wield the real power…..
Ex-general Michel Aoun is the quaint, frightening and messianic Maronite leader whose supporters provide the high number of Christians opposed to Siniora… He found no problem in trying to run Lebanon without Muslim ministers in 1990 – but is outraged at Siniora for trying to remain Prime Minister without Shiite cabinet members today. In fact, Hizbollah is far more intelligent than to send "Napoleon" back to the Baabda palace. Aoun will be swiftly dispatched …
What we are watching across the whole region is the steady but increasing collapse of American imperial power. It will not be a joyous event. It may prove to be terrifying. It will definitely be bloody. And Lebanon may now be the mirror that proves it all true.
This U-Tube video clip from Future TV (Thanks G for correction), the Hariri owned station of Beirut, showing the channel’s coverage of the opposition demonstration last week is a demonstration of how polarized the two sides have become. The point of the clip is to demonstrate how "un-Lebanese" the demonstrators are. It paints them as Syrian and Iranian inspired and promotes a conspiratorial view of the opposition. At the end of the clip there are interviews with Syrian workers who are joining the demonstration to support Nasrallah. The commentary argues that this is a sign of Syria's manipulations. But the interviewed Syrians are very forthright. They say they have come to show support for Nasrallah because without him they would be kicked out of the country, which may well be true. A bit like Mexican workers in the US demonstrating against congressional efforts to stop them from getting into the country.
One of the more catchy slogans being chanted by the demonstrators was:
Oh Jumblat, Oh you brute (`Akrout = Pimp)
The Shiites are descending on Beirut!