US President George W. Bush is to blame if Israel goes to war with Syria, former Foreign Ministry director-general Dr. Alon Lial charged on Sunday.
Lial, who took part in secret talks with Syria in recent years, accused Bush of torpedoing efforts at diplomacy between the two Middle East nations.
"(Prime Minister Ehud) Olmert and (Syrian President Bashar) Assad did their part. If a war breaks out this summer it's US President George Bush's fault, who is blocking the sides from advancing," Lial told Ynet.
Lial said Bush refused to discuss with Assad a "major deal", by which Syria would "defect" from the Iranian camp in favor of the moderate Sunni alliance and the West. Thus there is no point in talking peace with Syria, Lial said, and tensions are only increasing towards a possible war this summer.
"The situation is really starting to get dangerous," Lial said in conversation with Ynet. "Olmert has undergone a dramatic change in anything to do with negotiations. He's ready to talk with the Syrians, and his direction is very clear. He's ready to go back on the deals made by (former prime ministers Yitzhak) Rabin, (Ehud) Barak and (Benjamin) Netanyahu. There is no doubt the Syrians are interested in talking peace with Israel in return for sovereignty over the Golan Heights. This is a major advance in the Israeli position."
"The problem now lies with Washington, which lifted its opposition to Israel talking with Syria, but the US itself won't meet with Syria about the situation in the region. Assad wants Washington in the picture. He's saying" 'I can't change camps if the US doesn't cancel its boycott of me, and doesn't open the door for me into the Egypt-Jordan-Saudi camp. I'm willing to disconnect from Iran, but Israel won't be my partner in that – the US will.
"Therefore Bush is the bottleneck. The fact that he's willing to send an American official to mediate between the sides is significant. I hope the issue comes up in talks between Olmert and Bush next week, and that the Americans agree to send an envoy to examine the issue of Syria disconnecting from Iran," he said.
The Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth reported that, according to diplomatic sources, Assad hasn't replied to Jerusalem yet because he's waiting to see whether Olmert is strong enough politically. Dr. Lial rejected that statement outright. "Nonsense, I don't buy it for a minute," he said.
"The Syrians have wanted to talk for four years. They started in the Sharon era. They don't care who the prime minister of Israel is, as long as he's willing to give up sovereignty over the Golan. On the contrary, who can guarantee that whoever replaces Olmert will be willing (to give up the Golan)? I don't buy it."
"It's not true that Israel didn't get an answer from Assad. Don't get carried away by every headline," Lial scolded. "The Syrian position has long been clear. The change has to be from the Israeli side."
"We looked into the 'small deal' and it's a possibility. Now we need to see if the Syrians are willing and able to disconnect from Iran," he said.
There has recently been some advancement in relations between Syria and the US. About a month ago US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with her Syrian counterpart in the most dramatic step in recent years.
"This is definitely a milestone," Lial said, "but what will the Americans do in the end? The told us – go ahead and talk to the Syrians about the Golan, but the issues of Lebanon, Iran and Iraq – leave them to us," he added.
"If the Americans wanted calm in the region, they would do it. I hope both sides have enough brains not to get carried away, but Bush has a chance here to cool things down. When we battered Hizbullah the Americans were happy, and even wanted us to hit harder. The US might have a tough political nucleus – apparently the leading faction – that thinks negotiation efforts should be shelved and Assad should be targeted militarily.
"They might turn us into the contractor for their ambitions. Therefore I think Olmert - if he's willing to grapple with the Americans - has to bang his fist on the table and say: 'Folks, we aren't going to fight for you this summer'."