As Israel and the Palestinians get ready for our visit from Secretary of State Powell, it is interesting to look back on the Secretary's visit to Syria and Lebanon last weekend. It seems that in the few weeks since the end of "hostilities" in Iraq, the Americans have been giving young Bashar a lesson (or more exactly, clarifying the main points, since there is a risk that the young man may not understand) in the nature of the Middle East after the fall of Saddam. The list of issues supposidly raised by Powell make even the most moderate Israeli almost giddy: leaving Lebanon, stopping support for the Hizzbullah, closing the offices of the Palestinian terror organizations in Damascus, handing over additional playing cards (er, Iraqis) who have slipped into Syria, not playing a negative role in regard to the Road Map.
At the same time, there has been talk of renewing direct talks between Israel and Syria. This is not a coincidence. It is clear that Bashar is in grave danger of being next on the GWB hit list. The regime life expectency for those on that list is shorter then Michael jordan's post-playing days relationship with the Washington Wizards. The Syrians think (hope) that this will be the fastest way to get the Americans off their backs. They missed opportunities in the 90's during negotiations and maybe the talk of negotiations will stop the talk about terrorism.
So, class, what do you do? On the one hand, the natural move is to be open to peace talks. On the other hand, Israel has enough problems with the Palestinians and the hope of getting the violence stopped without turning energy in another direction. It seems to me that Israel should be in no rush to reach out to Bashar. We have bigger fish to fry and more pressing issues. The relationship with the Syrians is not unbearable as it is with the Palestinians. The Syrians are not offering anything that we can't refuse. The pressure is on them, there is no reason for us to make it easier for Syria.
Over the years, there have been attempts to play the negotiations off each other (both Barak and Rabin reached out first to Syria) and only moved on to the Palestinians when Assad the elder would not be pliable enough. Perhaps it would be better, this time, to deal seriously with the Palestinians and lower the intensity before we look in other directions.