Israel Wins New Friends, And Isolates an Old Enemy

Turkey and Jordan take front seat, Syria gets pushed to the back

SINCE its creation, Israel has stood alone in the midst of enemies, but the shifting alliances of the Mideast are broadening Israel's options, and soon could leave one of its fiercest foes, Syria, isolated.

Israel's offensive against Hizbullah guerrillas in Lebanon is one of several developments that hint at a shift of power in an emerging coalition of Israel, Jordan, and Turkey - where strategic and economic cooperation is gaining momentum.

But analysts warn that the isolation of Syria could backfire and strengthen its relationship with Iran and even lead to a thaw in relations with its oldest foe, Iraq.

"Iraq remains the key prize in the Middle East," says Dore Gold, a political scientist at Tel Aviv University. "It is the key struggle in the region. And the struggle for the future of Iraq is between the Jordan-Israel-Turkey axis on the one hand, and Syria and Iran on the other."

Turkey shows up

Since the March antiterrorism summit in Egypt, Turkey has emerged as a major player in the Arab world, although it is not counted among the Arab states.

"Israel and Turkey are part of a coalition of 13 nations that attended the Sharm el-Sheikh antiterrorism summit," says Alon Liel, a senior planner in the office of Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres. "The coalition is building up with a global orientation toward the United States."

"For some time now, the US has been advocating a larger role for Turkey in the Mideast and in Central Asia - particularly after Europe gave the cold shoulder to Ankara's application to join the European Union," says Marwan Bishara, director of the Jerusalem Council on International Relations.

In January, Turkey signed three far-reaching agreements with Israel: Turkey granted emergency landing rights to Israeli Air Force planes, Israel will train Turkish military units, and the two countries will conduct joint military exercises.

"Turkey's entry on the side of Israel has been angering many states in the region, particularly Syria," Mr. Bishara says.

Former Turkish Prime Minister Tansu Ciller visited Israel last year, and President Suleyman Demirel visited here last month - sending a clear message to Syrian President Hafez al-Assad.

"This left Syria in little doubt that it is being closed in by Turkey and Israel with Washington's blessing," Bishara says.

Another agreement provides for cooperation between the two countries in the gathering of strategic and security research with the prospect of Jordan joining the venture at a later stage.

Jordan, closing the circle of a dramatic shift in its foreign relations since the Gulf war, has provided bases for American troops and war planes to patrol the semiautonomous Kurdish area of northern Iraq.

Jordan gets in the middle

Because of its strategic position - shared borders with Syria, Israel, and Saudi Arabia - Jordan is now a key player in the region and on the road to mending its relations with the Gulf States offended by its support of Saddam Hussein in the 1991 Gulf war.

Jordan's warm relationship with the United States, peace treaty with Israel, growing influence over West Bank Palestinians, and thawing relations with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf put Jordan at the center of the realignment.

To some extent, Jordan's increasing strategic importance has been at the expense of Egypt and Syria, which led the Arab coalition forces supporting the US-led allied forces in the Gulf war.

While Egypt and Saudi Arabia remain the most important US allies in the region, Jordan and Turkey have emerged as increasingly important players.

"Seen from a Syrian angle, Jordan is joining the Israeli, American, and Turkish cooperation circle at a time when Israel is bombarding Lebanon and killing Syrian soldiers crossing its path," Bishara says.

"Jordan is now critical to Gulf security," says political scientist Gold. "Jordan is now in a strong position to demand oil and financial benefits in return for its shift of allegiance."

But Saudi Arabia has made it clear that it will not normalize relations with Israel until there is a peace deal with Syria.

The Syrian media has led its country's condemnation of Israel for the bombing campaign on Hizbullah, but the response of Syrian officials has been surprisingly muted. The cautious tone emanating from Damascus indicates that Syria does not want to jeopardize its talks with Israel.

"Syria's main strategic option remains the peace process with Israel," Bishara says. "The reality is that Peres's 'New Middle East' won't work without Syria."

Syria still holds a trump card: It could lift its sanctions on Iraq and provide Saddam with a door to the outside world.

Gold says there are indications that barricades at the Iraq-Syria border - closed for about 15 years - have been removed. The two countries are apparently cooperating in drawing water from the Euphrates River. Turkey recently blocked the free flow of water from the Euphrates to Syria.

But there is no doubt that Syria is the loser in these strategic shifts. And there are clear signs that the indirect pressure Israel is putting on Syria to rein in the Hizbullah and accept a deal on Israeli-US terms is having an effect.

Syria, which has so far resisted a peace deal with Israel, is eager to reengage with the world economy and find a way back into regional developments it has stayed out of since the Israeli-Palestinian peace accord was signed in 1993.

Israel leans on Beirut

In its offensive against the Hizbullah in Lebanon, Israel has pointedly directed all its demands toward the Lebanese and not to Damascus. Herein lies a clear message that Israel has the option of dealing directly with Beirut if Damascus proves too hard-line in its talks with Israel to find a broader solution that includes Lebanon.

"If it was up to us, we would be ready to open talks with Lebanon now," says Uri Savir, director of Israel's foreign ministry. "But Lebanon and Syria have a relationship. We will not interfere with that relationship as long as it does not affect the security of Israel."

The implication of US-led diplomatic activity to find a solution to the Hizbullah problem is directed toward the Lebanese in the belief that they can in turn pressure Syria, which maintains 35,000 troops in Lebanon and tightly controls the country.

"We have ultimately to reach understandings with Syria," Mr. Savir adds.

"But I think the time has come for certain decisions of a tactical nature to be taken in Damascus," Savir said, noting that it is no longer tenable for Syria to negotiate with Israel and support Hizbullah guerrillas in Lebanon.

Increasingly shunned by Turkey and no longer able to wield much influence with Jordan, Syria is relying on its alliance with Islamic of Iran.

With four-year-old US-brokered talks between Israel and Syria at a stalemate at least until after May 29 Israeli elections, Israeli officials are watching President Assad's reaction to the recent moves by Jordan, Turkey, and Israel with intense interest.

"We don't know how he is going to react," Mr. Liel says. "He might turn in other directions if he feels that there are forces building up against him."

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