debkafile Exclusive: In advance of Rice’s Middle East visit, Washington warns Olmert that its dialogue with Damascus is about to resume

Our Washington and Middle East sources report the secret US message warns Israeli prime minister that the Bush administration has decided to go back to direct diplomacy with Syria during or before the international peace conference opening in Annapolis on Nov.26. The level of the resumed talks has not yet been determined; the US ambassador may be sent back to Damascus to lead his country’s delegation in face-to-face meetings with Syrian officials, repeating the pattern and level the US-Iranian ambassadorial talks in Baghdad (which, debkafile notes, have so far produced nothing).
To calm Israel’s unease about a US-Syrian track running over its head, the American message assured prime minister Ehud Olmert that matters of concern to Israel, such as the future of Golan, will not be addressed, only such issues as Iran, Iraq and Lebanon.
The American Note was delivered as Secretary of State Condoleezza prepares to visit Jerusalem and Ramallah Sunday, Oct. 12, and Israel’s defense minister Ehud Barak is due to pay a working visit to the Pentagon.
Even so, the White House’s change of heart on Syria puts the US-Israeli strategic cooperation on a different, uncertain footing, say debkafile‘s political sources.
Officials in Jerusalem are getting worried about Israel being seriously outnumbered and outweighed to the point of isolation at the peace conference. They find it hard to tell whether the Bush is using the dialogue offer as bait to tempt Assad to attend the Annapolis conference, and so prod the Saudis and Egyptians to come too, or has greater significance. In any event, an ongoing US-Syrian dialogue would give the substantial Muslim-Arab bloc invited to the conference an extra boost. Twelve Arab League members as well as Malaysia, Indonesia and Pakistan have been invited, although not all have responded so far.
The Syrian president’s last-minute decision to be there after his insistent denials could introduce a further element of friction to the conference.
While Assad might not go so far as to pack the Syrian delegation with heads of Palestinian groups branded terrorists by the US, such as Hamas and Jihad Islami, who he harbors in Damascus, he is quite capable of sending over Palestinian enemies of Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad, such as the radical Fatah-Intifada and the Palestinian “Fronts.”
Beirut is getting as jumpy as Jerusalem about the Bush administration’s advance moves for the conference in Maryland, according to debkafile‘s Middle East sources.
Saad Hariri, leader of the anti-American March 14 majority coalition in the Lebanese parliament, returned from his Oct. 4 talks at the White House deeply disappointed. President George W. Bush told him that, while the US was committed to building up the Lebanese army as a shield for the pro-Western government in Beirut, he would not back the anti-Syrian army chief Gen. Michel Suleiman’s run for the presidency. The president urged Lebanon’s anti-Syrian leaders to carry on working for a political compromise of the national crisis through deals with Syria and Hizballah.
Hariri was not told of the US president’s decision to launch direct talks with Damascus before he left for home.
Even Hizballah’s leaders are worried; they fear Washington-Damascus talks will end in a Syrian sellout at their expense.

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