Israel vs. Bush & the Neoconservatives on Syria?

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Damascus makes perfect sense as domestic US politics. The Democratic Party is developing its own foreign policy, different from that of Bush, which involves negotiating with Middle Eastern actors rather than just attempting to isolate them, call them evil, and if possible overthrow them. In the post-Iraq era (that one is all over with but the shouting, folks), such a policy of (tough) negotiating makes sense for the US, even if Bush refuses to see it. There is a lot he cannot see.

But Pelosi’s trip doesn’t make so much sense on the surface if one stops to think how close the top Democratic leadership is to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which in turn is close to government of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. AIPAC had earlier pushed for isolating Syria.

But here we have Tom Lantos, among the staunchest partisans of Israel in Congress, expressing satisfaction with Pelosi going off to Damascus. And, Pelosi is carrying a message to Bashar al-Asad from Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Yet the trip is being denounced by Bush and the Neoconservatives around him, including Jewish intellectuals with deep ties to the Israel lobby.

So what is going on here, really?

One possibility is that AIPAC and Olmert feel that they have been burned by the Neoconservatives– by Elliot Abrams of the Bush National Security Council, by Richard Perle and Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute (and formerly of the Pentagon), by John Hannah and Irv Lewis Libby on Dick Cheney’s national security staff, etc.

How burned? As announced in their White Paper for Netanyahu in the 1990s, “A Clean Break,” , the Neoconservatives pushed an Iraq war explicitly aimed at overthrowing the al-Asad regime in Damascus and in allowing the full theft of all Palestinian land in Gaza and the West Bank by expansionist Israeli settlers, thus permanently derailing the Oslo peace process and preventing a binational solution to the Palestinian crisis.

The Neoconservatives promised the Americans and the Israelis that Israel would be more secure after an Iraq War.

But it isn’t. The head of Shin Bet, the Israeli FBI, admitted just last year that the chaos in Iraq is a dire threat to Israel and that the Israelis might eventually wish they could have Saddam Hussein back.

The American Neoconservatives were also all for the Israeli war on Lebanon of last July-August, wanted the Israelis to open a second front against Syria. Since the Israelis could not gain a decisive victory over little Hizbullah with its 5,000 fighters, it obviously would have been an even greater fiasco if they had attacked Damascus.

If the Baath regime in Syria really were overthrown at this point in time, likely the Muslim Brotherhood would take power in Damascus. (For the situation in Syria, see Josh Landis, Syria Comment.) It would be far more menacing to Israel than the secular Baathists, who just want the Golan back and a basic humane settlement for the stateless Palestinians. The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood in power would certainly fully back the Sunni Arab resistance in Iraq, would connive at overthrowing the Hashemite monarchy in Jordan, and would hook up powerfully with Hamas in Gaza. A Muslim Brotherhood Saladin might emerge who could unite the entire Sunni Arab Greater Syrian hinterland against Israel, posing a profound threat to it.

Al-Hayat reported about a year and a half ago that the Israeli political and military elite had decided that trying to get the Baathists in Damascus overthrown was too risky, and it was better to deal with them than with some unknown force that might emerge in their wake.

So since the Neocons’ Iraq War has turned into a catastrophe that poses an asymmetrical security threat to Israel, since the Lebanon war they so strongly backed turned into a fiasco, and since their plans for overthrowing Bashar are likely to even further endanger Israel, then the Israeli political and military elite must be fuming and seeking a way to outmaneuver the Bushies and their wild man Neocon allies.

Enter the new Democratic Party majority in Congress, which is traditionally much closer to the mainstream in Israel than are the Republicans (whose main pro-Israeli allies, the Neocons, are most strongly aligned with the Likud Party of Bibi Netanyahu, which now only has nine seats in parliament). The Democrats are obvious allies for a chastened Israeli mainstream that has decided to pursue peace with Syria and Saudi Arabia instead of trying to destroy them, as Richard Perle had urged. And, of course, the attractiveness of peace talks with Syria and Saudi Arabia is enhanced by the opportunity of allying with the Arabs against Iran and its client, Hizbullah.

If this analysis has anything to offer, Pelosi’s trip is a sign that the mainstream of the American Jewish community and the mainstream of contemporary Israeli politics have joined together to oppose the Likudnik policies of the Neoconservatives and the aggressive, unilateralist approach of the Bush administration. Those policies and that approach have failed miserably and have endangered Israel, and that would explain the tacit blessing Olmert has given Pelosi, and the warm support proffered her mission by representatives such as Lantos.

If even the Kadima Party leadership in Israel has decisively turned against the American Neoconservative movement to this extent, then the American Enterprise Institute may as well just pack up its Middle East policies and go home. They don’t represent Olmert, and they don’t represent AIPAC, and they certainly don’t represent (and never have represented) American Jewry. Their outrageous posturing that anyone who dares criticize their velociraptor warmongering is an antisemite is rather unimpressive if their policies are being opposed by the rightwing prime minister of Israel himself.

Of course, there is the danger that rather than seeking a comprehensive Middle East peace, the opening to Syria and Saudi Arabia will simply be used for military action against Iran or that no practical steps will be taken to resolve the Palestine issue (as they were not when Israel made peace with Egypt and later with Jordan).

But you have to wonder whether, after Richard Perle’s wild ride as a Dr. Strangelove-like influence-peddler in Washington, whether the time of Brit Tzedek v’Shalom may be coming.