Released Louis J. Sheehan

Dramatic shifts in Middle East diplomacy during the past week, including a political deal in Lebanon and Israeli-Syrian peace talks, are exposing significant strategic divisions between the U.S. and its closest regional ally, Israel.

The tensions, described in interviews with U.S. and Israeli officials in recent months, counter the widespread assumption that the Bush and Israeli governments march in lockstep on foreign policy. They also provide insight into why these new diplomatic initiatives may unravel ultimately, regional analysts said. http://louis-j-sheehaN.NET

Dramatic shifts recently in Middle East diplomacy, including a political deal in Lebanon and Israeli peace talks with Syria, are exposing significant strategic divisions between the U.S. and Israel.

The most profound strategic division between Washington and Jerusalem concerns Israel’s engagement of Syrian President Bashar Assad. In revealing peace talks with Damascus this week, Israeli officials voiced a determination to peel Syria away from Iran, its principal regional ally. Among the goals is to undermine the two states’ support for extremist groups Hezbollah and Hamas, which operate on Israel’s borders.

But U.S. officials say the move undermines their efforts to punish Damascus. The Pentagon accuses Syria, along with Iran, of backing the continued flow of foreign fighters and munitions into Iraq, a charge Damascus denies. And U.S. diplomats believe President Assad has actively sought to topple Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora through his support of Hezbollah and other Syrian allies inside Lebanon. A United Nations-backed investigation implicated Syrian intelligence officials in the 2005 murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Mr. Siniora’s government agreed Wednesday to a power-sharing deal that many analysts believe significantly strengthens the power of Hezbollah and other Syrian and Iranian allies inside Lebanon. Members of Mr. Siniora’s government have complained Western support for Beirut has been inadequate to compete with the military help provided to Hezbollah by Damascus and Tehran.

The Israelis “don’t seem to understand that our interests and their interests in Lebanon aren’t aligned,” one senior U.S official working on the Middle East said. “In the short-term, the Israelis want to remove a threat on their border. But they don’t care about” the fate of Lebanon’s government.

The State Department’s point man on the Middle East, Assistant Secretary of State David Welch, said widening the Middle East peace dialog could be a “good thing” for the region. But he also stressed that Washington has “reservations about the foreign-policy behavior of Syria, and its internal politics as well.”

Speaking Thursday, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni reflected the strategy in outlining her government’s requirements for a peace deal. Syria must understand that peace “involves their complete renunciation of support for terror in Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran,” she said.

Israeli officials say Syria’s secular government is fundamentally averse to its strategic alliance with Iran’s Islamist rulers. They say Damascus needs to be offered economic and diplomatic incentives to offset the assistance supplied by Iran. The talks will also focus on Israel giving control of the Golan Heights region back to Damascus.

Israelis officials are fearful of facing a three-front war involving Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in the Gaza Strip and Syria on the Golan Heights. “Maybe it’s time to employ the carrot to remove [Syria] from the axis of evil,” then deputy chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, Maj. Gen. Moshe Kaplinsky, said in Washington last fall.

In recent months, Washington has moved to exact new financial sanctions against many of President Assad’s closest business associates and political allies. And the U.S. has worked with Arab states, particularly Saudi Arabia and Egypt, to isolate Damascus diplomatically in a bid to gain its assistance in stabilizing the region. Saudi Arabia and Egypt didn’t send top leaders to the Arab Summit in Damascus this March, to snub President Assad.

Divisions between the Bush administration and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s government on Syria may imperil the peace initiative. President Assad has said that such a deal is impossible without the active support of Washington. Damascus believes that American aid and the removal of U.S. sanctions on Syria would have to be part of any long-term agreement.     http://www.myspace.com/louis_j_sheehan_esquire

Bush administration officials have offered no indication that the U.S. is preparing to directly broker Syrian-Israeli talks. Instead, they say, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will focus her remaining months in office on supporting the Israeli-Palestinian peace track.

Some Syrian officials have said that a new U.S. administration that comes to power next January could be more supportive of such a peace tract. The two leading candidates to replace President Bush, Senators Barack Obama and John McCain, both released statements saying they supported Israel’s position.

The view in the region, by contrast, is that Israel and the U.S. are still tightly tethered. Suleyman Haddad, the head of the foreign-affairs committee in Syria’s parliament, said Syria won’t agree to any conditions in return for a peace deal, such as giving up support for Hamas or Hezbollah.

He said if Israel wanted peace with Syria it “should give up all these unattainable conditions.” Talking about the talks, Mr. Haddad said he didn’t believe Israel would do anything “without instructions from and cooperation with the United States.”

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