TEL AVIV, Israel, Feb. 23 (UPI) -- The United States is demanding Israel not to even "explore" the possibility of peace talks with Syria, the Haaretz newspaper reported Friday.
Israelis are divided on whether they should listen. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has cited American objections as a reason for rejecting Syrian peace overtures, but Israel has not heeded Washington's demands when it came to the settlement issue. Meanwhile Arab analysts criticized the American attitude.
According to the Haaretz report, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told the Israelis in January that even exploratory talks would be a prize to the Syrian regime that undermines Lebanon's sovereignty, is involved in attacks on the U.S. forces in Iraq and cooperates with Iran in arming the Lebanese Hezbollah.
"When Israeli officials asked Secretary Rice about the possibility of exploring the seriousness of Syria in its calls for peace talks, her response was unequivocal: Don't even think about it," Haaretz said.
In public U.S. officials have maintained that Israel is a sovereign state and can do what it considers best. However, Rice recently said: "Everybody would like to see peace between Israel and Syria too, but Syria is currently engaged in behavior that is not stabilizing the region."
Jeoff Anisman, a spokesman at the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv, was unable to comment on the Haaretz report, but said, "Syria knows what it has to do to be a responsible member of the international community. The Syrian regime must stop supporting terrorists and cooperating with other sponsors of terrorism such as Iran. Syria must also stop interfering in Lebanon."
According to Haaretz, the Mossad intelligence service believes that Syrian President Bashar Assad is engaging in mere propaganda when he calls for peace talks with Israel. He is trying to alleviate international pressure from his regime.
Prime Minister Olmert suspects as much. At a press conference Wednesday, he said Israel is "interested in peace, not in the process of peace.... (Not in) helping Syria pretend that it is now a peace-loving country and therefore it has to be released of all the efforts made by the international community to establish an international tribunal to inquire (its involvement in) the assassination of the former Prime Minister of Lebanon (Rafiq Hariri) and of the violent Syrian involvement with Hezbollah in Lebanon."
Responding to a reporter who suggested Israel negotiate with Syria to check its intentions, Olmert said: "If the Syrians are really interested in genuine peace ... they can't at the same time be actively involved in making the opposite against the State of Israel and in order to find out what they are doing ... I don't have to negotiate with them. I can see and you can see and everyone can see."
Nevertheless, during a visit to Ankara last week, he seemed to have given Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan some leeway to probe a Syrian readiness to really come to terms with Israel.
According to Haaretz, Israeli military intelligence analysts are divided on Syria's real intentions. Defense Minister Amir Peretz and some intelligence personnel want to test Syria's sincerity, it reported.
Rime Allaf, an associate fellow at London's Chatham House and the daughter of former Syrian ambassador Mowaffak Allaf, criticized the U.S. attitude.
In a debate in bitterlemons-international.org, Allaf noted that since the 1973 war -- when the Israelis repelled a surprise Syrian-Egyptian attack -- "the important battles in the Syrian-Israeli conflict have not been fought on the Golan Heights, but in other arenas and even through proxies."
Now there is an impasse, she maintained.
"While Syria has repeatedly indicated it was willing to restart negotiations unconditionally ... Israel has time and again rejected these advances, fully supported by the United States," she wrote. The Bush administration has instructed all its allies to turn a cold shoulder toward Syria in an attempt to isolate it, she argued.
"Such behavior is foolish and counter-productive, for a peace settlement with Syria is a prerequisite to comprehensive calm," Allaf maintained.
If Washington really believes Damascus is so powerful that it can be held responsible for U.S. problems in Iraq, for the problems in Lebanon and Palestine, it could try to beat Syria into submission. That "hasn't been effective until now." The other option is to entice Syria into the American sphere of influence, Allaf wrote.
Riad Kahwaji, director general of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA) in Dubai, maintained that the attempts to isolate Syria have pushed is closer to Iran. It complicated the situation in Lebanon and Iraq, and brought Iran closer to Israel's northern borders via Syria and Hezbollah.
There is a paradox in all this, argued former Palestinian minister Ghassan Khatib who is now vice president of Birzeit University in the West Bank.
In negotiations with Arab countries Israel has proven time and again that it respects the balance of power more than anything.
The Syrian involvement in Iraq and Lebanon is motivated, at least in part, by a desire to obtain more bargaining chips for the day it will negotiate with Israel. However, Washington seems to be telling Damascus, "You are invited to negotiate but only after you give up the bargaining chips you have," Khatib argued.
By excluding Israeli-Syrian peace talks Washington precludes also the possibility of taking advantage of the Arab peace initiative of 2002, he added. That initiative roughly offers a comprehensive Arab-Israel peace in return for a comprehensive Israeli withdrawal from all the occupied territories captured in 1967.