As the US Warms to Syria, A Frost May Descend on US-Israeli Relations

The US relationship with Syria has been strained to say the least and though the Bush Administration didn't formally treat Damascus as part of the "Axis of Evil," Syria was effectively treated as an international pariah. The United States has criticized Syria for supporting groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, and has accused the country of allowing extremists to cross its border to fight US-led forces in Iraq. The Bush Administration recalled the US ambassador to Syria for consultations in early 2005 in protest of the Hariri assassination in Lebanon -- Syrian officials have been investigated in the killing, though Damascus denies involvement. Significantly, however, the Bush Administration opted to maintain diplomatic relations even as the relationship continued to sour and deteriorate. As Martin Indyk, the Director of the Brookings Institution Saban Center for Middle East Studies and former US Ambassador to Israel, noted the dominant view of Syria that had developed in Washington during the Bush Administration is that of  Syria as "a country ruled by an unreliable leader, with ruthless ambitions to dominate its smaller Lebanese neighbor, harboring Palestinian terrorists and Iraqi insurgents, and maintaining an alliance with Iran - a strategic adversary of the United States."

In early March, the Obama administration began taking action to reverse historic US policy of isolation towards Syria preferring to directly engage Damascus even if only temporarily to better gauge what Syria is currently thinking. Though US politicians regularly visit Damascus (Speaker Pelosi and Senator John Kerry among others with Congressmen Stephen Lynch, a Democrat, and Republican Bob Inglis meeting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad just this past Sunday), no US diplomat had been since 2005. That all changed in March when Secretary Clinton dispatched two high-ranking emissaries, including former US ambassador to Lebanon Jeffery Feltman and Daniel B. Shapiro, the top Middle East officer at the National Security Council.

Today Syria's Foreign Minister Walid Moallem praised President Obama's pledge to pursue a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians as "positive," but warned the real test for the new American approach in the Middle East was yet to come. More on this from CBS News:

"We welcome the positive speech which indicates a clear inclination towards a two-state solution, including a viable Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital," Moallem told CBS News on the sidelines of a two-day Alliance of Civilization Conference in Istanbul.

"The speech reflects Washington's encouragement for a lasting peace settlement on all tracks and signals the importance of the Turkish role in this respect, unlike the position of President Bush who was against the resumption of indirect talks between Syria and Israel," said Moallem.

But, Moallem (at left) cautioned, "We still need to know the nature of the relationship between the new U.S. administration and the Israeli radical, right-wing government which is rejecting the two-state solution, international resolutions and the Arab peace initiative."

On the other hand, US-Israeli relations may take a decidedly more confrontational tone. According to Haaretz, the Obama Administration is warning Democratic members of Congress that Obama Administration is expecting a clash with new Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over his refusal to support the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

In recent weeks, American officials have briefed senior Democratic congressmen and prepared the ground for the possibility of disagreements with Israel over the peace process, according to information recently received. The administration's efforts are focused on President Barack Obama's Democratic Party, which now holds a majority in both the Senate and the House of Representatives.

The preemptive briefing is meant to foil the possibility that Netanyahu may try to bypass the administration by rallying support in Congress.

The message that administration officials have relayed to the congressmen is that President Obama is committed to the security of Israel and intends to continue the military assistance agreement that was signed by his predecessor, George W. Bush.

However, Obama considers the two-state solution central to his Middle East policy, as he reiterated during a speech in Turkey on Monday, and he intends to ask that Netanyahu fulfill all the commitments made by previous governments in Israel: accepting the principle of a Palestinian state; freezing settlement activity; evacuating illegal outposts; and providing economic and security assistance to the Palestinian Authority.

I tend to agree with Bilal Saab of the Brookings Institute who views "the visit of Feltman and Shapiro to Syria represents not a thaw, but merely a de-icing of relations." The opening is a space to exchange frank views and explore commonalities on which to move forward. A Syrian peace deal with Israel is likely predicated on the return of the Golan Heights and that seems unlikely at this point. Still Syria may content itself with breaking its near decade long isolation and enjoying a productive relationship with the West including an expansion of commercial relations and an easing of trade sanctions. The Obama Administration in a gesture of goodwill granted a waiver allowing Boeing to go ahead with major overhauls of two 747 jetliners belonging to Syria's state-owned Syrian Arab Airlines. Further improvements, however, are likely predicated on Syria refraining from its traditional disruptive and destabilizing role in Lebanon and from Syrian compliance in the non-proliferation of missile technologies.

However, the de-icing of US-Syrian relations is not the catalyst for the frost that is descending over US-Israeli relations. There the return of the hawkish Likud-led coalition and statements by various members of the new Netanyahu government on Israeli settlements in the West Bank, the two-state solution and the Annapolis process are clearly disruptive to the progress made the past decade. For the moment, US relations with Netanyahu's Israel seem clouded at best in advance of Prime Minister Netayahu's visit to Washington. It is ironic and extremely saddening that as the Obama Administration came to power, Israel turned to the right by the narrowest of margins again forestalling progress towards a lasting and sustainable peace in the region.

Tags: Mid-East Peace Process, US Foreign Policy, US-Israeli Relations, US-Syrian Relations (all tags)

Comments

12 Comments

Re: As the US Warms to Syria, A Frost May Descend

Don't miss Seymour Hersh's story on the prospects for a Golan deal in the New Yorker:

http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2009/ 04/06/090406fa_fact_hersh

Ha-aretz reported last week that Netanyahu has already decided to attack Iranian nuclear facilities, too (though this may just be a way of pressuring Obama not to pursue his intended policies on that issue either).

I am going to be very very sickened if I have to watch, not only Netanyahu screw the possibility of peace in our time to the best of his ability, but US political theater abetting him (with voices from the Democrats in Congress).

It will be an interesting test of Obama--he needs somehow to get a critical mass of support behind bold and reasonable peace proposals, among all parties.

by tdub 2009-04-08 06:56PM | 0 recs
Funny, I dont remember voting for Netanyahu...

Was that on another part of the ballot?

Cause, evidently HE thinks he is charge of US foriegn policy?

by WashStateBlue 2009-04-08 07:55PM | 0 recs
He wasnt elected...

but he thinks he can engineer a coup!!

by Ravi Verma 2009-04-08 07:57PM | 0 recs
Re: Stop making Post Titles to Long to RE!!!!!!

Just face it, when it comes to dealing with the Palestinians, Israel is a right-wing country.

Frankly I think this is a wonderful development. We need SOMETHING to show Israel they can't boss us around and spy on us with impunity.

by MNPundit 2009-04-08 09:55PM | 0 recs
A Frost May Descend on US-Israeli Relations

Obama will not be able to change American foreign policy without first making peace in the Middle East, i.e., creating a viable Palestinian state and returning the Golan.

It is that simple and that difficult and it will not be possible without putting a considerable amount of frost on US-Israeli relations.

Thanks for front paging this story and analysis.

by MainStreet 2009-04-09 03:21AM | 0 recs
Not true...

He is ALREADY changing US foriegn policy, with Russia, China, Europe, etc...

He also is reaching out to the rest of the middle east, WHO WILL recognize a change for the horrendous Bush regime.

It's a complex tightrope he needs to walk.

But, MS, you can't doom ANY foriegn policy advancement unless Gaza is returned?

With the Netenyahu government in place, and with the power of the Israeli lobby, I will agree this is the most difficult FP challenge the Obama admin faces.

But, the world is not just Palestian.

Obama has many places he can and will change US foriegn policy.

by WashStateBlue 2009-04-09 05:10AM | 0 recs
How about holding Syria and its allies accountable

Its just amazing to me how people here continually blame Israel for the problem. Lets see, it has been the Arab nations waging war from day one of Israels rightful existence and return of the land to the jewish people in 1948. It has been the arabs and muslim extremists who have taken every opportunity to sabotage peace there. Its Hamas and Hezbollah who use palestinian children as human bombs to kill for their cause. So again exaclty how is Israel to blame for this mess. Have they at times overreacted, yes....but imagine if the US was under constant attack and threat, what would we do? I assure you our response would be far more lethal.

Its amazing how convienent it is to recall that a peace accord was ignored by Arafat. They had the chance in their hands and what did they do? Intifada...that was the response.......No...put the blame where it is due....on Hamas, Hezbollah, and outside influences from Syria and Lebanon....

by adb67 2009-04-09 05:27AM | 0 recs
Fact check please

return of the land to the jewish people in 1948

Please go read some history. The Land of Israel or the Promised Land is a Hebrew Biblical construct which encompasses a far wider swath of land than the current State of Israel. The current State of Israel was created by decree, mandates and agreements. Please read the Balfour Declaration, The British Mandate of Palestine and the 1947 UN agreement on the partition.

And before you pile on this in no ways suggest Israel does not have a right to exist. Further I do not believe all the blame lies with Israel. After 60+ years there is more than enough blame to go around on all sides.

by jsfox 2009-04-09 06:58AM | 0 recs
Re: Fact check please

I agree.  History suggests that the Israeli's are their own worst enemy, overall.  While the Israeli's have been victims of many horrible acts committed against them, they really have done many of the same...definately a eye-for-an-eye mentality.  And when you live eye-for-an-eye, everyone eventually ends up blind, in this case almost literally.

The State of Israel has a inordinant amount of clout in the West compared to its size and position in the world.  This looks to be changing over time, especially as the first hand memories of the holocaust are dying out.  Younger people now see an Israel that is harassed by its neighbors and then goes on to commit atrocities under the guise of "they made us do it".  When was the last true attack against Israel...1973?  The idea of the Arabian countries attacking Israel militarily is fading, especially if diplomacy is being pursued actively.

The Israel of today is a bit like a neighbor who gets pissed that you will not spray for weeds in your yard, so they burn down your house.  But at least they are not yet the neighbor who just gets drunk and burns down EVERYONES house...yet.  I think that is the worry since they have nukes.

by Hammer1001 2009-04-09 07:17AM | 0 recs
Re: Fact check please

They have what you say is an inordinate amount of influence becuase other countries in that part of the world are nothing more than brutal dictatorships.

As for readin history, try going back to the bible to understand the jewish claim to the land and the Lords promise. Thats the only history I need...

by adb67 2009-04-09 06:42PM | 0 recs
Re: Fact check please

Yes, the Palestinians are just defending themselves. Read this from the Jerusalem Post:

The second story from the JPost (I promised there were two) goes like this:

A Palestinian who was given a job working in the Israeli settlement of Bat Ayin attacked two Israelis with an ax. One was killed, the other merely wounded. The Israeli that was murdered by the ax-wielding terrorist was a 13-year-old boy. The other intended victim was able to escape with "just" a head wound. He was presumably the more spry, since he was only 7 years old!

Islamic Jihad took credit for the attack. A Hamas spokesman, Ayman Taha, told the Jerusalem Post: "This attack was committed in the framework of the resistance. This is a reaction to the continuing occupation and the continued building of settlements.

"This is a natural reaction," he said, "especially against the backdrop of Israel attacks. We are a people occupied, and it is our right to defend ourselves and to act in every way and with every means at our disposal in order to defend ourselves."

Not a war crime. Not a crime against humanity. A "legitimate effort" by the Palestinians to "defend themselves." By bashing in the heads of two children with an ax.

by adb67 2009-04-10 05:40AM | 0 recs
Journalist Philip Weiss on the Neocon agenda:

"In terms of their politics, they were almost all Democrats and then as soon as the Democratic party suggested that it wasn't going to have a strong military, Norman Podhoretz and Irving Kristol, the grandfathers of this movement, they went Republican. Why? Because they said, back in the 70's, a strong American military is needed to protect Israel."

Download an mp3 of Phil saying the above here (9:45 minutes in)
Antiwar.com/Radio - 07/12/2008
Antiwar.com/Radio - 03/18/2009

Watch the BBC documentary "The War Party", part 1 of 5

by ExposeTheIsraelLobby 2009-04-09 07:40AM | 0 recs

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