Ehud Olmert has announced that Israel and Syria have entered into desultory peace talks in Istanbul, with Turkey acting as a mediator.
There's more to this than meets the eye, I think.
For one thing, a deal with Syria on the Golan is highly unlikely at best.
There's been a great deal of speculation that this is nothing but a cynical ploy by Israeli PM Ehud Olmert in an effort to distract the Israeli public from his five separate ongoing investigations for bribery and corruption,and there's undoubtedly something to that. Like Ariel Sharon before him, Olmert may very well be banking on the Left-leaning elements of the Israeli media, Supreme Court and the Labor Party to bail him out of his troubles if they see he's working to kick some of his fellow Jews - 'settlers' out of their homes.Sharon was able to do exactly the same thing with Gaza, staving off his own indictments for bribery and corruption.
But Olmert would have a much more difficult time pulling this off with the Golan than Sharon did with Gaza. Israelis oppose giving up the strategic Golan by around 70%. It's an area that commands the strategic high ground of all of Northern Israel, and the Syrians used it to shell villages on a constant basis. The IDF spent a lot of blood to take the area in 1967.
It's also the key to much of Israel's water supply, and unlike Gaza, is actually part of Israel, with the residents having legal protections unavailable to the Jews who were removed from Gaza. And the public perception of the area is quite different. I doubt that Olmert would be able to make any kind of actual deal without jeopardizing his coalition. Shas, for instance would undoubtedly bolt, and he would probably even see a revolt from his own party.
So while the Syria talks have a certain value as a distraction, I doubt that's the whole story.
Another piece of the puzzle has to do with the conventional wisdom that the Bush Administration was somehow caught by surprise and is supposedly 'furious' at Olmert for dealing with Syria's Basher Assad.
I doubt it.
For one thing, President Bush himself let it slip out accidentally while he was in Israel that he was fully appraised on the Israel-Syria talks by Olmert. And frankly, as willing as Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni have been to bend over for the Bush Administration's farcical policies regarding the Palestinians, Hamas and Gaza, the idea that the worm has turned all of a sudden is pretty far-fetched.
I'm reasonably sure that not only did President Bush know all about it, but he actually engineered the whole thing. And the talks being held with the assistance of Turkey, a US ally, just underlines it.
Olmert is unlikely to be able to use the Golan the way Sharon was able to use Gaza, the whole idea of a deal of some kind involving the Golan is highly unlikely, and President Bush was undoubtedly in on the talks the whole time, and probably even orchestrated them.
So what's up?
I don't think the talks actually have that much to do with Israel at all,but have a great deal to do with the US.
What the Syrians want much more than the Golan is help with their economy, a free hand in Lebanon,and international legitimacy for their regime... things the US can give them. And they likely realize that no matter how craven Olmert is, he would almost certainly be unable to deliver on any deal involving surrendering the Golan to Syria.
The Bush Administration wants to pull Syria out of Iran's axis, and wants an end to Syria's interference in Iraq and an end to any al-Qaeda jihadis, money or arms coming into Iraq via Syria.
And that's what I'm reasonably sure the real negotiations are about, with Ehud Olmert and the Israelis acting as the go-betweens, so that the Bush Administration isn't seen as talking directly to Syria.
Underlining this is the fact that Iran's president Ahmadinejad is reported to be absolutely furious over the negotiations according to the London-based al-Sharq al-Awsat newspaper.The reaction was excessive if all that was at stake is the Syrians playing Olmert for a fool to get back the strategically valuable Golan.
The Bush Administration has been attempting to flip Syria for quite some time, and that's a part of what Syria's invite to the Annapolis gang bang was all about.
These negotiations between Syria and the US with Israel as a conduit could also have a great deal to do with the fact that the Bush Administration was willing to throw its ally Foud Siniara under the bus and accede to Hezbollah's taking over and turning Lebanon back into a Syrian colony again.
Ultimately, I think we'll see that negotiations that are supposedly about the Golan will end up dragging along and going nowhere, though it may have the effect of keeping Olmert in power a while longer...something else the Bush Administration finds desireable, so that they can continue to push Olmert for far more dangerous and far reaching concessions to the Palestinians.
The back channel negotiations between the Bush Administration and the Syrians could likewise have some dangerous and far reaching consequences as well.