One of the obstacles to negotiations with Syria frequently cited by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is American opposition to talks with Assad. Olmert did not conjure these objections out of thin air. But it is fairly obvious that invoking American opposition as the determining factor in Israel's decision not to engage the Syrians was a convenient charade (perhaps for both parties). Now, the Americans are sending signals that the Israelis are going to have to supply their own alibi.
At a closed meeting with academics at Hebrew University on Monday, U.S. Ambassador Richard Jones said that the U.S. is not blocking Israel from conducting talks with Syria. Asked to comment on Ambassador Jones's statement, the deputy press attache of the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv, Geoffrey Anisman, told Ha'aretz that
we are unaware that any U.S. official has ever expressed an opinion on what Israel should or should not do with regard to Syria.It is hard not to chuckle at this pithy response; the Anismanian delivery came through even in print.
I had the pleasure of meeting Anisman last summer in Tel Aviv, and he stuck out as one of the young, bright stars in the American diplomatic corps. He also has a great sense of humor, no doubt acquired after years of watching Mel Brooks and Woody Allen films and absorbing Yiddish witticisms told by Anisman Senior.
In all seriousness, the writing is definitely on the wall. Those voices from the State Department long clamoring for a kind of diplomacy that consists of more than threats and refusals to talk to certain states must be feeling emboldened. The turning point was certainly the agreement with North Korea, which, strange as it may seem, could even earn Bush a Nobel Peace Prize. Bitterly opposed by John Bolton, the North Korea deal basically marked a return to the Korea policy of Bill Clinton. America's quiet backing of the Saudi peace initiative, and the March 10 meeting with Iranian and Syrian diplomats in Baghdad are further evidence of a shift in policy.
There are of course valid grounds on which one might continue to object to dialogue with Syria, as our Lebanese friends do not tire of pointing out. I have to confess that I am still sympathetic to some of their warnings. For one, I do not know how long the Assads will stay in power, and what might happen to a peace agreement once they fall. Secondly, I worry about the effects that bolstering the Syrians now will have on Lebanon's future.
On the other hand, the draft framework for a Syrian-Israeli agreement that was leaked in January is an offer that Israel simply cannot refuse.