With embattled Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert all but out of office, attention has already turned to how the fallout will affect peace negotiations. In this vein, a spokesperson for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas declared that Olmert’s struggles “will leave a negative impact on negotiations,” while Syrian Minister of Information Mahdi Dahlallah stated that “Israel’s weak government may become an obstacle to a peace that Syria wants to achieve.”
Of course, the Palestinians and Syria are right. Indeed, how can there be any progress towards peace while Olmert has one foot out the door, and while a new round of elections would stall politics in Israel for at least three months? Yet Olmert’s scandal is hardly the biggest obstacle facing peace negotiations–particularly on the Syrian front, where the regime has shown a stubborn unwillingness to concede on either of two major issues that peace will require.
The first requirement is that Syria abandons its relationship with Iran and Hezbollah. As I’ve previously noted, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad has already precluded this possibility, calling it “absurd” in an interview with the Italian weekly L’Espresso. But yesterday, Assad dug his heels in even further, reaching a defense deal with Iran that includes provisions for reciprocal visits by top military officials, joint military training, and cooperation on technical advancements. This deal is clearly intended to reassure Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was noticeably disappointed by news of possible Israeli-Syrian peace, and will further strengthen Hezbollah. These realities would preclude even the most desperate of Israeli leaders from pursuing peace.
The second requirement–which Israel has historically demanded of all its partners in peace negotiations–is that the Syrian regime ends its incitement against Israel. Yet, even as Assad has gone as far as supporting separate Lebanese-Israeli negotiations while addressing an English-language audience, he has barely spoken on Syrian-Israeli negotiations in his state-run media, dropping a few references deep in articles on peripheral diplomatic topics as if at random. Meanwhile, the top stories in the Syrian press included Jimmy Carter’s most recent assertion that Israel possesses 150 nuclear warheads, as well as a report that Israel intends to destroy 3000 Palestinian homes–stories that further condition the Syrian public against embracing peace with Israel.
The bottom line is that a number of obstacles will prevent Israel and Syria from reaching peace in the near future–with the Assad regime the biggest obstacle of them all.