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FOREIGN POLICY ON HOLD

New York Times: 'Israel Torpedoes Multi-Billion Dollar Arms Sale To Saudi Arabia & Gulf States'

Maariv Daily: 'Israel Objected To Offensive High-Tech Not Defensive Weaponry'

IsraCast: U.S. Consideration Of Israel's Security Concerns Again Indicates Depth Of Joint Interests

Nancy Pelosi the Democratic Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and Bshar El Assad

Are new developments afoot in the Middle East? The 'to and fro' of international figures coupled with the Arab League's peace offer might be misleading. The IsraCast assessment is that Israeli foreign policy is so closely tied to the Bush administration that it has been put on hold until the Iranian nuclear crisis is resolved.

A bevy of international leaders have inundated the Middle East against the backdrop of the Arab League conference in Riyadh. Meanwhile, Iran finally freed the fifteen British security personnel after apparently abducting them in international waters in the Gulf.

In Israel's capital of Jerusalem, civic employees were busy hoisting one flag while taking down another. One after another Secretary of State Rice, U.N. Secretary General, German Chancellor Angela Merkel came calling to check out peace prospects between Israel and the Palestinians.

Although the international boycott of the Hamas government remained generally in tact, the international figures were eager to drum up some movement between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Meeting in Riyadh, the Arab League offered the Jewish state a peace agreement; all Israel had to do was take back the Palestinian refugees and return to the 1967 lines including East Jerusalem.

President Bush

The take-it-or-leave-it offer was one that most Israelis saw as an invitation to national suicide. Officially, Olmert accented the positive while eliminating the negative. He proposed a Middle East summit to promote peace while also declaring that Israel would not take back 'even one refugee ' . The two-state solution meant that Palestinians would be settled in Palestine, not in Israel.  Enter Nancy Pelosi the Democratic Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. After meeting Olmert in Jerusalem, she flew on to Damascus to tell the Syrians she had brought an invitation from the Israeli leader  to engage in peace talks. Back in Washington, President Bush was fuming over Pelosi's trip to Syria, a member of his evil axis. Bush blasted Pelosi publicly for undermining his efforts to isolate Syria notorious for its support of terrorist Hamas and Hezbollah and its collusion with insurgents in Iraq who are killing and wounding American soldiers. The Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem fervently denied that Olmert had sent any such invitation with Pelosi. What does it all add up to? Simply this - Israel's ties and interests with the Bush administration are so intertwined that no Israeli prime minister would be likely to jeopardize them. It started with former prime minister Ariel Sharon who received a Bush commitment that Israel should not be obligated to return to the 1949  (pre- 1967) lines or to take back the Palestinian refugees. As the Bush letter put it: ' it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949'.

Moreover, the refugee problem should be solved by settling Palestinian refugees in a Palestinian state ' rather than in Israel'. This was part of Sharon's deal to totally withdraw from the Gaza Strip in 2005. At the U.S. request, four West Bank settlements were also evacuated to demonstrate that Israel was also committed to future withdrawals in that area.The culmination of this partnership came in the Second Lebanon War last summer. The U.S. granted time for Israel to take on Hezbollah.  Two highly respected Israeli journalists Yoav Limor and Ofer Shelach are about to publish a book revealing the Bush administration actually encouraged Israel to attack Syria during the war.Olmert has reciprocated. During his most recent visit to the U.S., he warned that a precipitous American withdrawal from Iraq would have dire consequences for the Middle East. Syria, after its ejection from Lebanon and facing the threat of an international tribunal for the assassination of Lebanese Premier Rafik Hariri, may be seeking to ease its isolation by peace overtures to Israel. President Bashar Assad has called publicly for peace talks. Olmert responded by calling on Assad to prove it's not just a ruse to get off the international hook; this is the contention of Mossad chief Meir Dagan.  But some Laborites including party leader Amir Peretz feel that Jerusalem should call Assad's bluff and explore peace prospects. Assad has also threatened future hostilities  in the absence of a peace process bringing to mind the scenario preceding the Yom-Kippur war in 1973. In other words, is this an historic opportunity to make peace with Syria? Peretz is not the only one in Labor who thinks it might be.

President Ahmedinijad

But at present, it appears as if all this activity and debate is merely a side-show; the main event is still coming up. It is the showdown over Iran's drive to acquire nuclear weapons. What if the international sanctions do not dissuade President Ahmadinejad to halt his nuclear weapons program?The danger of war with Syria is not perceived in Jerusalem as a threat to Israel's existence, Iranian nuclear weapons are. America is the only foreign country which has stated unequivocally that it will not acquiesce in Iran's acquiring 'the bomb'. The Bush condemnation of Pelosi's visit to Damascus demonstrated how strongly the U.S. President feels about Syria.Would any prudent Israeli prime minister risk rocking the boat with the Bush administration under the circumstances and with the Iranian threat looming closer? There is one wild card - the Labor party primaries next month. Either Ehud Barak or Ami Ayalon are expected to replace Defense Minister Amir Peretz at Labor's helm;  unless the Winograd interim report does not oust him from the defense portfolio before then. A new Labor party leader, who will be presumably become defense minister, could shake up the whole political situation. 

Karnit goldwasser
three IDF captive soldiers

And what of the Palestinians? At the prodding of Secretary Rice, Olmert and Abbas agreed to go through the motion and meet every two weeks. But with Abbas no more than a front man for Hamas after being stripped of his powers by Hamas what can possibly be accomplished by the meetings? Meanwhile, the Palestinians continue to launch more Qassam rockets into Israel from Gaza, while the IDF has been ordered to re-enter Gaza to pre-empt terrorists about to attack. On the other hand,  Olmert's popularity  rating has also sunk to the rock bottom at three per cent. Surely a credible Israeli peace initiative can only be conducted by a credible prime minister. Barring unforeseen circumstances, it appears that Israel's foreign policy will stay on hold at least until the Iranian nuclear crisis is resolved and the Bush administration leaves office.   Further evidence of the Israeli-U.S. bonding appears in the New York Times report that the Bush administration has backed off a multi-dollar arms sale to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. The idea was to bolster their capability for deterring Iran. However, Israel objected to the highly sophisticated tanks, naval vessels, air defenses and smart weaponry. A Pentagon official was quoted as saying the Israelis understood it was also to their advantage to strengthen the America's Sunni allies but were worried that it could tilt their technological advantage. Jerusalem did not oppose the defensive components such as anti- missile defenses or Patriot missiles.The sale was estimated to be worth five to ten billion dollars.

Footnote: How should the abduction of the fifteen British soldiers by the Iranians be perceived? If British Prime Minister Tony Blair told the truth about the British vessel sailing in international waters, the Iranians perpetrated an act of brazen aggression on the high seas. It raises the question: ' If Iranian President Ahmadinejad behaved as an international outlaw without the bomb what will he dare do if he gets it? At least the Iranians did abide by international law by allowing the International Red Cross to visit the prisoners and releasing information about their condition. This is not the case with the three IDF captives. Hezbollah refuses to allow Red Cross representatives to see Udi Goldwasser and Eldad Regev who were abducted in a cross - border attack by Hezbollah that sparked the war.

The same is true about Gilad Shalit who was abducted inside Israel by Palestinians from the Gaza Strip. At his meeting with Pelosi, Syrian President Assad offered to mediate with Hezbollah for the release of the two soldiers. Syria, Hezbollah's sponsor which is now resupplying the guerrillas rockets and weapons, obviously  wields a lot of clout. In addition, Syria hosts the foreign headquarters for Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other Palestinian groups. If Assad is serious  about making peace with Israel  he could gain some credibility by  helping to secure  the release of the  three IDF captives who have been held for eight months.

David Essing

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