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Diversion Tactic

Ehud Olmert and Basher al-Assad are negotiating to save themselves, not their countries.

JERUSALEM--At first glance, Ehud Olmert and Bashar al-Assad have nothing in common. The first is a slick, media-savvy politico, while the second is an awkward, anti-charismatic, unloved and unlovable dictator. But Israel's prime minister and Syria's ruler have both concluded that the best way to beat the rap, respectively, on corruption and murder charges is to make peace with one another.

That, at least, is the impression of many Israelis, prominent commentators among them, in light of last week's revelation of indirect talks between Syrian and Israeli negotiators in Turkey. The announcement coincided with reports of a lengthening list of charges against Olmert for alleged bribe-taking and influence-peddling stemming back to his term as Jerusalem's mayor. By wooing Damascus, Olmert hopes to divert attention from the criminal investigation against him and charm the pro-peace press, which, as most Israelis know, wields the real political power in this country.

If this is indeed Olmert's tactic, he may have learned it from his mentor, Ariel Sharon. Right-wing opinion in this country still insists that Sharon unilaterally evacuated Gaza in 2005 in order to escape indictment on charges similar to those now facing Olmert. So, like Sharon turning over Gaza to Hamas in order to save his own political skin, Olmert is expected to yield the Golan Heights to Syria to preserve his--even at the expense of Israel's security. After all, as political scientist Asher Arian once put it to me, Israeli politicians always prefer collective to individual suicide.

Similarly, Assad is counting on his negotiations with Israel as a personal lifeline--particularly to silence those who still denounce him for his role in the assassination of Lebanese prime minister Rafik Al Hariri, hosting Hamas, and funneling weapons to Hezbollah. Signing a treaty with Israel, he thinks, will effectively remove his name from America's list of terrorist sponsors. It's difficult to arraign a man--or so the popular wisdom holds--who is in line for a Nobel Prize.

Assad, too, can look to the example of his predecessor: his father. Hafez al-Assad's culpability for the massacre of as many as 20,000 of his countrymen in Hama in 1982, and his complicity in the murder of 241 U.S. servicemen in Beirut the following year, seemed to be forgotten once he expressed interest in the peace process. Better yet, Assad can follow the precedent of his father's old nemesis, Yasir Arafat, who, thanks to his signature on the Oslo Accords, was instantly transformed from master terrorist and Saddam-supporter to Nobel laureate and Bill Clinton’s most frequently invited White House foreign guest.

But what if the cynics are wrong? What if, as both Olmert and Assad claim, the negotiations are sincere and no mere decoy? What are the chances that these two beleaguered leaders can conclude an historic agreement based on mutually excruciating concessions?

The odds, quite simply, are slim. Even the most left-leaning newspapers in Israel have expressed doubt whether Sharon's old legerdemain can work the same magic for Olmert. At most, they concede, the prime minister has momentarily diverted attention from his legal imbroglios but will not be able to sway Israeli public opinion toward peace. Unlike Sharon, Olmert lacks hawkish bona fides or any serious military credentials--and he squandered any capital he had by disastrously mishandling Israel’s war with Lebanon in 2006. And even if his emissaries are able to conclude an agreement with their Syrian counterparts, Olmert, with the lowest approval ratings in Israeli history, cannot give up the Golan, an area dearer to Israelis--according to a recent poll--than Jerusalem.

Assad's latitude is even narrower than Olmert's. Syria today is largely a satellite of Iran, which is supremely unlikely to watch idly while an essential part of its empire secedes and allies with the enemy. Tehran could easily prod Hamas and Hezbollah to initiate a war, indefinitely blocking any diplomatic process, or even arrange for Assad to meet the same fate as his brother, Basil (who many in the Arab world believe did not die in a "car accident" in 1994, as the Syrian government claimed, but was actually assassinated). Not surprisingly, while Olmert has repeatedly intimated the need to exchange the Golan for peace with Israel's oldest foe and a northern border free of Iranian-backed terror, Assad has spoken only of the return of sacred Syrian territory and said nothing about reconciliation, much less severing ties with Tehran.

Despite their differences, neither leader seems to have the strength or maneuvering room--let alone the genuine desire--to make the sacrifices necessary for peace. Israelis would be advised not to pack their cars for an impending family trip to Damascus, but once again to gear up their tanks.

Michael B. Oren, a contributing editor to The New Republic, is a senior fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem and the author of Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present (Norton, 2007).

By Michael B. Oren