WASHINGTON, Dec 18 (IPS) - Neo-conservative hawks in and outside the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush had hoped that Israel would attack Syria during last summer's Lebanon war, according to a newly published interview with a prominent neo-conservative whose spouse is a top Middle East adviser in Vice President Dick Cheney's office.
Meyrav Wurmser, who is herself the director of the Centre for Middle East Policy at the Hudson Institute here, reportedly told Yitzhak Benhorin of the Ynet website that a successful attack by Israel on Damascus would have dealt a mortal blow to the insurgency in Iraq.
"If Syria had been defeated, the rebellion in Iraq would have ended," she asserted, adding that it was chiefly as a result of pressure from what she called "neocons" that the administration held off demands by U.N. Security Council members to halt Israel's attacks on Hezbollah and other targets in Lebanon during the summer war.
"The neocons are responsible for the fact that Israel got a lot of time and space... They believed that Israel should be allowed to win," she told Ynet. "A great part of it was the thought that Israel should fight against the real enemy, the one backing Hezbollah... If Israel had hit Syria, it would have been such a harsh blow for Iran that it would have weakened it and (changed) the strategic map in the Middle East."
Wurmser's remarks bolster reports from Israel that hawks in the Bush administration did, in fact, encourage in the first days of the Israel-Hezbollah conflict the government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to extend its war beyond Lebanon's borders.
"In a meeting with a very senior Israeli official, [U.S. Deputy National Security Adviser Elliot] Abrams indicated that Washington would have no objection if Israel chose to extend the war beyond to its other northern neighbour, leaving the interlocutor in no doubt that the intended target was Syria," a well-informed source, who received an account of the meeting from one of its participants, told IPS shortly after the conflict ended last August. A similar account was published in the Jerusalem Post at the time.
Abrams has been known to work particularly closely with both David Wurmser, Meyrav's husband, and Cheney's national security adviser, John Hannah, who, in turn have long favoured "regime change" in Damascus.
Indeed, both Wurmsers, along with former Defence Policy Board chairman Richard Perle and former Undersecretary of Defence for Policy Douglas Feith, worked together on a 1996 paper, entitled "A Clean Break", for incoming Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, which called for overthrowing Iraq's Saddam Hussein as the first step toward destabilising Syria.
Wurmser and Hannah, according to the New York Times, argued forcefully -- and successfully with Abrams' help -- against efforts by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to persuade Bush to open a channel to Syria in an effort to stop the fighting in its early days.
Given her husband's work for Cheney, Wurmser's remarks, which come as the debate over policy toward Syria both here and in Israel is hotting up, offer important insights into the thinking of the dwindling number of administration hawks, particularly those around the vice president who is reportedly steadfastly opposed to any direct engagement with Damascus or Tehran.
Since last summer's conflict, Syrian President Bashar al-Asad has given a series of interviews with western media -- most recently, Italy's La Repubblica -- in which he has called on Israel for direct negotiations to end their state of war and fully normalise relations.
The repeated offers have split Olmert's government. Some cabinet officials, led for now by Defence Minister Amir Peretz, have called for exploring Assad's offers, if for no other reason than to determine what price, besides return of the occupied Golan Heights, Israel might be expected to pay, and what it might gain, particularly with respect to possibly weakening Syria's ties to Iran.
But Olmert has resisted this approach, insisting Sunday, for example, that he would not consider talks with Damascus until and unless it first renounced terrorism and halted its support of "extremist influences", presumably the Damascus-based wing of the Palestinian Hamas party and Hezbollah.
But many analysts believe that Olmert is being held back primarily by fear of crossing hard-liners in the Bush administration, which charges Damascus with trying to regain its influence in Lebanon by subverting the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and providing support to the Sunni insurgency in Iraq.
Assad himself argued as much in his Repubblica interview. "...[T]he most important thing... is that Washington doesn't want that. This means [Olmert's] is a weak government; it allows Washington to take the decision instead of the Israeli government."
But, while hard-liners like Cheney's office and Abrams still have the upper hand on Syria policy here, the administration is also finding itself under growing pressure to re-think its strategy there, as in Iraq.
Earlier this month, the bipartisan Iraq Study Group (ISG) called for Washington to directly engage Damascus and Tehran in regional negotiations designed to stabilise Iraq. Like some prominent Israelis, the ISG's co-chair, former Secretary of State James Baker, has argued that creative diplomacy could woo Damascus away from its strategic alliance with Iran.
"If you can flip the Syrians, you will cure Israel's Hezbollah problem," he said recently, adding that Syrian officials -- he met with the foreign minister in September -- had indicated they could persuade Hamas' militant external wing to accept Olmert's conditions for direct engagement with the Palestinians.
The idea of engaging Syria has attracted growing support not only from the U.S. foreign policy establishment and Democrats, several of whom have or are making their way to Damascus over the Christmas recess, but from some important Republican lawmakers, as well. Sen. Arlen Specter is due to travel there next week, while even Sen. Sam Brownback, the favoured 2008 presidential candidate of the Christian Right, has endorsed what he called the ISG's call for a "very aggressive, regional diplomatic effort."
The idea of engaging Syria -- particularly as part of a broader "land-for-peace" deal with Israel-- is anathema to the neo-conservatives whose ranks within the administration have steadily diminished over the past two years and now, in the wake of Defence Secretary Robert Gates' replacement of Donald Rumsfeld, face further losses in the Pentagon. Until his nomination, Gates served as a member of the ISG and, during his confirmation hearings, indicated sympathy for its diplomatic ideas.
Indeed, Wurmser, who is herself an Israeli closely identified with the Likud Party, expressed a sense of imminent defeat. Noting last week's departure of former UN Amb. John Bolton, a key neo-conservative ally, she said, "[T]here are others who are about to leave."
"This administration is in its twilight days," she said. "Everyone is now looking for work, looking to make money... We all feel beaten after the past five years..."
While she blamed Rumsfeld, the military, and the State Department for the failure to achieve neo-conservative goals in Iraq and the wider region, she also attacked Israel's conduct of last summer's war, insisting that it provoked "a lot of anger" in Washington, presumably in her husband's office, among other places.
"The final outcome is that Israel did not do it [attack Syria]. It fought the wrong war and lost... [i]nstead of a strategic war that would serve Israel's objectives, as well as the U.S. objectives in Iraq."
IPS sought comment from Wurmser, but its calls went unreturned.