How Bush Can Leave a Mideast Peacemaking Legacy

If President George W. Bush truly wants to leave a legacy of peacemaking in the Middle East, he's looking in the wrong place. Instead of focusing exclusively on Israeli-Palestinian talks, Bush should do more to encourage renewed Israeli-Syrian negotiations. (Article continued below...)

The United States has much to gain strategically from renewed Israeli-Syrian dialogue. Syria could be pressed to play a more constructive role in the region—instead of being a spoiler or, worse, turning into a full-fledged rogue state.

In recent months Israeli and Syrian leaders have been exchanging positive messages through Turkish mediators. Unlike the weak Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, Syrian President Bashar Assad can actually deliver on a peace deal with Israel. The Israeli-Syrian track can move faster than Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, where the two sides are still far apart on the central issues: Israeli settlements, the fate of Palestinian refugees and the final status of Jerusalem. By contrast, the Syrians and Israelis mainly need to negotiate over the return of the Golan Heights, a strategic terrain that Israel has occupied since the 1967 Middle East war.

An Israeli-Syrian peace deal is possible by the end of the Bush presidency, but it won't happen without the deep involvement of the administration, which is still trying to isolate Syria. On May 7, Bush extended U.S. sanctions against Syria for one more year.

Turkish leaders are not expecting the Bush administration to support these talks, according to an Arab diplomat in Damascus. But the Turks are taking a longer view: they hope to get the Syrians and Israelis discussing details, to build confidence between the two sides and to develop a framework for an agreement that could be in place when a new U.S. administration takes office next year. Assad seems happy to negotiate under Turkish auspices, but he's unlikely to sign a peace deal without an American president at the table.

Both Assad and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert have something to gain by negotiating, even unofficially. (Indeed, Olmert told NEWSWEEK's Lally Weymouth in an interview last week that he was "looking forward" to negotiating with the Syrian leader.) They can be involved in a process and show the world that they want peace. But for Olmert it might not be enough to save him from internal Israeli scandals and growing calls for his resignation. Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who would replace Olmert until new elections were held, is believed to be even more adamant about the need to negotiate with Syria. "Because of our good relations with both Syria and Israel, we were asked by both of them to effect better communications. We've been speaking to the leaders of both countries," Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told NEWSWEEK recently. "It's important for us to try to gain some ground. If we can help achieve peace in the Middle East, that will have a major positive impact on the region."

By organizing secret meetings between low-level officials and advisers, the Turks are also hoping to defuse tensions between Israel and Syria, which have been escalating since Israeli warplanes bombed a site in the Syrian desert in September. U.S. and Israeli officials say that Syria was in the initial stages of developing a nuclear reactor with help from North Korea—a claim Syria denies. The Arab diplomat noted that ongoing talks would reduce the possibility of fighting—accidental or planned—along the Golan. It's an act of de-escalation through diplomacy, even if the mediation will move slowly.

Even without a regional settlement, Israel has much to gain from a deal over the Golan. It would mean not only a peace treaty with Damascus but an end of Syrian aid to what is now Israel's most dangerous enemy: Hizbullah, the Lebanese Shiite militia that did surprisingly well in its war with a far superior Israeli army in the summer of 2006. On May 9, Hizbullah dispatched hundreds of heavily armed fighters into West Beirut, and within 12 hours it had altered Lebanon's delicate political balance. Hizbullah's military victory—in which it quickly routed Sunni militiamen, took control of their political offices and shut down media outlets owned by the Sunni leader Saad Hariri—is likely to bolster Assad's position in any negotiations.

Publicly, the Bush administration has been lukewarm to the Turkish effort. "If Syria and Israel wish to pursue peace, the United States is never against peace," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told the American Jewish Committee on April 29. But she quickly added, "It's been difficult to see Syrian behavior that has the prospect of being more stabilizing in the region, rather than the destabilizing behavior that we're seeing."

Unofficially, the administration could be sending overtures to Syria. Jeffrey Feltman, the deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs (and the former U.S. ambassador to Lebanon), met for two hours earlier this month in Washington with Syria's ambassador to the United States, Imad Moustapha. It was one of the highest-level meetings between a U.S. and Syrian official since Washington cut off top-echelon contacts in early 2005. Moustapha reportedly left on a flight to Damascus a few hours after the meeting.

After Saddam Hussein's ouster the Bush administration accused Syria of sheltering Iraqi Baathist leaders and allowing Islamic militants to slip into Iraq to fight U.S. forces. In 2004 Bush imposed economic sanctions against Damascus and tried to isolate it. That policy accelerated after the February 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, in which top Syrian officials have been implicated by a United Nations investigation.

In response to America's cold shoulder, Assad's regime became more dependent on Iran, which helped shore up the Syrian economy with construction investments and cheap oil. Damascus also enhanced its alliance with Hamas, Hizbullah and the renegade Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Assad knows the United States cannot find a way out of Iraq without his help. But just to be safe, he keeps his connections to Hamas, Hizbullah and Sadr as potential bargaining chips that can shape events in the Palestinian territories, Lebanon and Iraq.

Syria has consistently said that full peace is possible, but only if every inch of the Golan is returned. In January 2000, President Bill Clinton led marathon talks between Hafez Assad—Bashar's father—and then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. Those discussions collapsed over a sliver of land, about 100 meters wide, that would have given Syria access to the Sea of Galilee, a major source of water for Israel.

Ultimately, the United States can get more out of Assad in exchange for the Golan than it can by isolating him. If there are serious negotiations, Washington can demand that Assad stop interfering in Lebanon and Iraq, carry out domestic reforms and drop Syrian support for Hamas and other Palestinian groups that reject peace with Israel. Right now the United States and Europe have little leverage over Assad, because he remains isolated. But Turkey has provided a new opening; it would be a shame if the Bush administration squanders it.