Bush

Syriana: Newly Announced Israel-Syria Peace Talks Run Against Grain of Washington's Anti-Engagement Policy

| Wed May 21, 2008 4:21 PM EDT

Just a week after President Bush, speaking at Israel's Knesset, likened those who would advocate engagement with "terrorists and radicals" to Nazi appeasers, the governments of Israel and Syria—a close ally of Iran—have announced that official peace talks are underway between their nations, mediated by Turkey. "It is better in this situation to speak rather than to shoot," declared Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert in a statement Wednesday. "This is what the sides agreed."

Noted the Syrian foreign ministry in a similar statement: "Both sides have expressed their desire to conduct the talks in good will and decided to continue dialogue with seriousness to achieve comprehensive peace."

The Bush administration, which was informed of the planned talks by Israel and Turkey, offered reluctant support. "It is our hope that discussions between Israel and Syria will cover all the relevant issues," a State Department official, speaking on background, told Mother Jones. He outlined Washington's outstanding concerns with Syria, including its "support for terrorist groups, facilitation of the passage of foreign fighters into Iraq, and intervention in Lebanon, as well as repression inside Syria. An agreement dealing with these issues would be a true contribution to peace."

While Bush-era Washington has been consumed with ideological debates over whether talking to hostile regimes and militant groups rewards or legitimizes them, a parade of veteran senior Israeli security and diplomatic officials has pushed the case, both in Israel and Washington, that engaging adversaries such as Syria and Hamas could advance their nation's security interests. "The alliance between Syria and Iran is mainly one of convenience," Israel's former foreign ministry director general and Mossad official David Kimche told me in January in a suburban Tel Aviv cafe. "There is no deep connection. And it's worth our while, if we could weaken that link."

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