Faith-based foreign policy faces perils ahead

Ideology is fine for campaigners, bloggers and talk show hosts, but it often wreaks havoc in the real world, where effective policy requires flexibility, not rules dreamed up in think tanks and advocacy groups.

That lesson has defined Israeli policy for decades, but it is being eroded by Jerusalem’s acquiescence to a U.S. administration that has implemented a foreign policy based more on faith than pragmatism.

A stubbornly ideological administration has put the United States in a deep hole in the international arena — and a vulnerable Israel could pay a big price for playing along with the true believers in Washington.

While Israel has always taken a hard line on terrorists and front-line adversaries, it has traditionally remained open to peace feelers, however tenuous.

It wasn’t just U.S. pressure that caused the hard-line Yitzhak Shamir government to start talking to a blood-drenched PLO or to engage in the Madrid peace process in the early 1990s. Yitzhak Rabin, a celebrated general who could hardly be called a peacenik, signed the Oslo agreement and shook Yasser Arafat’s hand in 1993, not because he believed the old terrorist leader had suddenly developed a love of Zion but because of a conviction that Israel’s future was dependent on finding some way to talk to its enemies.

Syria has long been a fomenter and supporter of terrorism and a source of regional instability. But the Jewish state has never shrunk from talking to Damascus whenever its leaders believed there was even a glimmer of hope to advance negotiations and avoid war.

Israel has even maintained backchannel contacts with Iran, despite the fanaticism of its leaders, in the belief that such contacts could someday pay important dividends.

Israeli governments representing both the left and the right understood that you make peace with your enemies, not your friends, and that in the Middle East, every chance for peace is a long shot. That has been the U.S. view of the region as well — until now.

An administration driven by rigid ideology expects Israel to play by the same rules. Current U.S. doctrine says you never talk to terrorists or terror-sponsoring countries; therefore Israel must do the same, regardless of its very different circumstances.

When Syrian president Bashar Assad sent out tentative peace feelers last year, the Bush administration laid down the law to Israel: don’t respond, even though some analysts in the Israeli government believed there might be slight shifts in the Syrian position that were worth exploring.

Last week, those instructions became even more explicit; according to the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, during her recent Mideast visit, demanded that Israel avoid even exploratory contacts with the Assad regime.

The government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is not particularly inclined to start new talks with a Hamas-led Palestinian Authority, but there, too, the Bush administration has made its demands clear: don’t give Hamas or anybody connected to it the time of day.

Israel is in a straitjacket of American design, barred from employing its traditional hard-headed pragmatism, prevented from exploring possible new routes to peace. It is treated as a client state, not an ally; its politically weak leaders, afraid of angering a senior partner in Washington that believes talking to enemies is tantamount to endorsing them, meekly complies with U.S demands.

Jerusalem should look more closely at what these policies have done to U.S. interests and influence around the world.

President Bush’s black-and-white, good-versus-evil view of a complex world and his refusal to negotiate with those he deems unworthy have left the United States with almost no allies and little credibility.

That isolation has undercut U.S. efforts to deal with weapons of mass destruction in the hands of extremists and increased, not decreased, the armies of terrorists eager to lash out against enemies real and imagined.

The Iraq war he started on the basis of ideology, not intelligence, has spread instability across the Middle East and strengthened Iran, according to U.S. intelligence estimates.

Washington’s refusal to talk to Iran hasn’t slowed its quest for nuclear weapons, and may have rallied a restive populace behind an increasingly unpopular leadership. It’s refusal to talk to Syria hasn’t changed Syrian behavior for the better, and may have pushed Damascus deeper into the Iranian orbit.

So shouldn’t Israel’s leaders be alarmed that on key matters involving their nation’s security they are being dictated to by a government in Washington whose ideology-driven foreign policy has undercut vital shared priorities and added to the dangers Israel faces in a seething Middle East?

Faith-based foreign policy hasn’t worked for Washington, and now it threatens to compound the problems facing a Jewish state that once based its foreign policy on tough pragmatism, not theories and beliefs. Israel can’t afford to thumb its nose at its only real ally — but there could be a big cost to continuing to follow the dictates of an administration that remains pure in its beliefs but increasingly alone in its policies.

Sharon Spurns Syria Peace Talks Push


Syria’s President Bashar Assad is proving to be as stubborn a character as his father.

But where Assad senior showed his obduracy by refusing to make concessions for peace, the younger Assad shows his by continually pushing for peace talks — or at least saying he wants them.

Despite repeated failures to elicit a positive response from Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Assad continues to call for a dialogue with Israel, using every available emissary to deliver the message. According to several Western diplomats and politicians who have met the Syrian leader lately, Assad remains ready to start talks immediately, without preconditions.

However, Sharon is unimpressed, insisting that Assad is not interested in peace, only in dialogue. According to Sharon, what Assad really wants is a show of talks to alleviate U.S. pressure on him to democratize and stop supporting terrorism.

Not everyone in the Israeli establishment agrees, though. In the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and Foreign Ministry, calls are mounting for Assad to be put to the test.

Assad’s latest peace message was delivered by U.N. Special Envoy Terje Larsen, who met Assad in Damascus on Nov. 25.

“President Assad has reiterated to me today that he has an outstretched hand to his Israeli counterparts, and that he is willing to go to the table without conditions,” Larsen declared after their tete-a-tete.

A Syrian spokesman later clarified that while it was true that Assad had no preconditions, he believed it would be a pity to waste what had been agreed on in almost a decade of negotiations his father conducted with previous Israeli governments. Previous Israeli prime ministers reportedly agreed to return the entire Golan Heights to Syria, but the talks broke down over Syria’s insistence on keeping Israeli land it took by force after Israel’s 1948 War of Independence.

“About 80 percent of the issues have already been resolved,” the spokesman claimed.

Assad had sent the same message with Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, in September; Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.) in early November; several European diplomats over the past few months; and the Syrian ambassador to Washington, Imad Mustafa, a few weeks ago.

In an early November briefing to a small audience, including the Israeli consul in New York, Mustafa claimed that Israel and Syria had been on the verge of agreement three times, and that each time Israel pulled back because of a lack of political power or political will.

The implication was clear: If Israel could muster the political will today, a peace deal was there for the taking.

Officially, Israel says that if Assad wants peace, he first must stop supporting terrorism. The Syrian leader should close down Palestinian terrorist offices in Damascus and stop supporting the radical Hezbollah militia in Lebanon, Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom declared in Jerusalem in late November.

Assad claims the terrorist offices in Damascus deal only in public relations and that, in any case, he is willing to discuss their continued presence on Syrian soil, as well as the Hezbollah question, during peace talks. Everything would be on the table, he says, and — just as Syria doesn’t have preconditions — neither should Israel, Assad says.

Israeli officials said the demand to close terrorist offices is not a precondition but a call for a signal that Assad is serious about peace.

The Israeli army believes Assad is serious. According to military intelligence, if Israel would be ready to go back to its pre-1967 borders, Assad would be ready to make peace. For months now, military intelligence has been recommending to Israeli politicians that Assad’s intentions should at least be tested.

But Sharon remains skeptical. His aides said there has been no substantial change in the signals from Damascus and, therefore, no change in the prime minister’s position.

Sharon holds that Assad has been feeling the heat since the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. Syria is defined as a rogue state, and with U.S. forces next door, Syria fears it could become a target. Assad wants to appease Washington, and one of the best ways to do that would be to open talks with Israel under U.S. auspices.

Sharon aides said that with Israel about to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank, Assad knows the prime minister can’t contemplate simultaneous concessions on another front, so there’s little chance Assad will be engaged and tested. Therefore, they said, he merely is making “cost-free” declarations to score points in the international community, especially with the United States.

But other Israeli officials have reservations about Sharon’s attitude. A senior Foreign Ministry official reportedly argued in a recent closed debate that “negotiations with Syria can’t hurt anyone. Assad’s intentions ought to be thoroughly examined. Rejecting him out of hand is bewildering.”

Israel, the official continued, is locked into a preconception that Assad is not serious about peace and that rejecting his overtures won’t have any warlike consequences.

“But we could be making a big mistake,” he warned.

Leaders of the opposition Labor Party also have been critical. They say Israel has nothing to lose by talking to Assad: If he is serious, a genuine peace dialogue will evolve, and if not, he’ll be smoked out.

In an editorial on Sunday, the daily newspaper Ha’aretz wrote that if the government thinks Assad is trying to get away with “cost-free” declarations, it should call his bluff.

“This is precisely why Israel should return the diplomatic ball to Assad’s court,” Ha’aretz wrote. “It must prove to the international community, as well as to the upper echelons of the IDF, the intelligence community and the Foreign Ministry — who are not happy with the government’s response — that they are wrong.”

Moreover, Ha’aretz wrote, there are other reasons to take Assad up: It would be to Israel’s advantage to negotiate while Assad is weak and under international pressure, it would be good to put Syria’s support for terrorism at the top of the agenda and it would be better to get back to the negotiating table without having to go through another round of violence.

It seems more likely, however, that Sharon will continue to insist that Assad first expel the Palestinian terrorist leaders from Damascus before making any reciprocal move.