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Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher - April 24, 2006

Q. How do you explain the Olmert government's restrained response to the April 17 suicide bombing in Tel Aviv? How is the Iranian-Syrian strategic alliance holding up under American pressure...?

Q. How do you explain the Olmert government's restrained response to the April 17 suicide bombing in Tel Aviv that killed nine and wounded dozens?

A. The response was indeed restrained. Beyond the usual "more of the same" promises, such as targeting Islamic Jihad terrorists, hastening construction of the security fence and expanding operations in Jenin and Nablus, the government's only innovation was to announce that it would act to revoke the Israeli citizenship of Hamas legislators from Jerusalem, in effect forcing them to move to Palestinian territory. Even this threatened response was overblown: Palestinians in Jerusalem have permanent residence status in Israel--not full-fledged citizenship.

Newly-elected Hamas members of the Palestinian Legislative Council from Jerusalem, led by red-bearded Muhammad Abu Teir, were an easy target: they were among the most outspoken in praising the suicide bombing, which was the first inside Israel since Hamas and Olmert were elected, hence seen as something of a test of intentions for both. The readiness of Hamas leaders to welcome the bombing was greeted with outrage in Israel and internationally, particularly when contrasted with the sharp condemnation of the bombing issued by PLO leader and PA President Mahmoud Abbas. But it is precisely these factors that help to explain Olmert's restrained reaction.

Israeli intelligence analysts were particularly impressed by the international reaction to the suicide strike and the Hamas praise, and assessed that a harsh Israeli reaction that reminded everyone of the Palestinians' underdog status would deprive Israel of some of the benefits of global approval and sympathy. Indeed, Hamas had a "bad week" last week, with Jordan canceling a high level visit--based on charges, described by knowledgeable Jordanians as trumped up, that Hamas was smuggling in arms--and Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmad Abd al-Ghaith declaring himself "too busy" to meet with his newly-appointed Palestinian counterpart, Mahmoud al-Zahar.

Hamas' instinctive praise for the suicide bombing and its later appointment of a known Gazan terrorist leader, Jamal Abu Samadhana, to head a new police unit, were broadly understood as pointing to the "real" Hamas--still a terrorist organization--rather than the one ostensibly reflected in lame attempts on the part of its Gazan leadership to sound moderate and reasonable. Why should Olmert spoil this, when he is one of the first to acknowledge that in any event there is no military solution to this conflict?

Then too, the bombing caught Olmert in the midst of sensitive coalition negotiations. Too strong a military reaction might alienate the left; too weak a response, the right. Forcing Hamas' Jerusalem contingent to leave the city, coupled with ongoing takeovers of homes in Arab East Jerusalem by militant settler groups that Olmert avoided condemning, sent a message that the incoming prime minister remains dedicated to "united" Jerusalem, yet is not risking military escalation.

Apropos the coalition negotiations, the bombing reinforced Olmert's arguments in favor of separation, removal of settlements and rapid completion of the fence. Not coincidentally, Kadima's and Labor's mutually agreed guidelines became more explicit on these issues following the bombing.

Q. Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, president of the Iranian Expediency Council and former president of Iran, visited Damascus last week. How is the Iranian-Syrian strategic alliance holding up under American pressure, and what does the visit mean for Washington and Jerusalem?

A. Syria has for years been Iran's only self-described "strategic ally" in the region, and the vehicle for deploying Iran's proxy force in Lebanon, Hizballah. It makes sense that the regime in Tehran, under growing American and international pressure over the nuclear issue, wants to ensure the stability of this alliance and send a message to Washington that Iran has important and even dangerous friends. Hosting Hamas at the Third Jerusalem Conference in Tehran and pledging financial support for the new Palestinian government were part of the same campaign. That it was Rafsanjani who made the Syria visit, rather than the outspoken titular leader, President Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad, points to the serious intentions of Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei, who has appointed Rafsanjani to oversee the president's decisions and "put out fires" where and when necessary.

Yet the contrast between the regional situations of Iran and Syria is instructive. Iran is reaping the benefits of America's fiasco in Iraq, filling its coffers with money generated by skyrocketing oil prices, and shoring up strategic relationships with Russia and China that allow it to some extent to counter US pressure over the nuclear issue. Meanwhile, the nuclear confrontation earns Tehran points with much of the third world. Still, Iran cannot simply ignore the talk in Washington of a military confrontation. Hence its need for regional allies.

Syria's Baath regime, too, is under international pressure engineered by Washington, but it has far fewer assets with which to counter the US. Nor is it of one mind with Iran regarding Iraq: Syria has offered covert support to the remnants of Saddam Hussein's Baathist regime and to Sunni Islamists in Iraq, while Iran supports the Iraqi Shi'ites. If Tehran is to establish a "Shi'ite crescent" extending across the southern and central two-thirds of Iraq and reaching Hizballah in southern Lebanon, it needs the cooperation of Syria, whose Alawite ruling clique traces its origins to Shi'a Islam.

Bashar Assad's regime in Syria, then, is a weak link in Iran's regional strategic security structure, and Rafsanjani's visit points to its importance. Washington and Jerusalem would do well to take note: if Damascus could be removed from its alliance with Tehran, thereby neutralizing Hizballah (something the Lebanese themselves seem incapable of doing), then Iran's strategic reach would be considerably shortened, and its capacity to retaliate against an attack on its nuclear potential reduced.

One way to do this might be to engineer regime change in Damascus. But this is not a promising option, if only because there is no serious political opposition there and Washington has (hopefully, and finally) learned not to believe the tall tales of veteran exile opposition "leaders". The only potentially effective coup d'etat in Syria would likely install a Muslim Brotherhood regime--hardly an improvement on Assad.

An alternative might be to try and woo Assad away from his unsavory friends by offering him a peace process with Israel. This is not as outlandish an idea as it may appear at first glance. Assad himself sought to reopen peace negotiations with Israel, without preconditions, three and again two years ago. He was turned down by PM Ariel Sharon because Sharon did not wish to part with the Golan Heights. Sharon's task was made easier by the Pentagon, which frowned on any Israeli-Syrian contacts that might be understood as "rewarding" Assad as long as the Syrian leader aided and abetted anti-American forces in Iraq. But at the time, even right wing Israeli politicians like Binyamin Netanyahu and Sylvan Shalom suggested that Israel explore the option, reasoning that a weak Bashar Assad might make important concessions that his late father, Hafez, had rejected.

Negotiations with Syria have been used by politicians from Yitzhak Rabin to Netanyahu and Ehud Barak as a kind of creative foil to the Palestinian track: a means of pressuring the PLO with regional isolation (if Israel succeeds in making peace on all other fronts) while holding out an alternative to a failed process with the Palestinians. The problem was that Hafez Assad could not be enticed into a reasonable deal.

For Ehud Olmert, a renewed peace process with Syria holds out the prospect of neutralizing pressures to negotiate with Palestinian partners--Mahmoud Abbas, Hamas--who are either too weak or too extreme. Success with Damascus would also presumably enable Olmert to eliminate Syria's support for Hamas and neutralize Hizballah, thereby improving Israel's security on two fronts as it approaches a possible confrontation with Iran.

The problem is that Bashar appears to be too weak, too extreme and too inconsistent to turn into a viable negotiating partner for Israel. And Olmert would have to convince Washington to drop its veto.