IN OTHER WORDS: Engage Syria

Israel’s PM, Ehud Olmert, got what he wanted most out of his White House meeting with President Bush on Monday - a reiteration of America’s uncompromising bargaining position on the Iranian nuclear issue. Tough talk is fine, but not enough. Whenever high-level talks are proposed, Bush and Olmert point out the many objectionable policies of Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad. That misses the point.

Diplomacy is not simply a matter of rewarding countries that act the way Washington likes. It can also be a useful tool for trying to induce countries like Syria to behave more constructively. A Syria detached from Iran and engaged by the US could conceivably be enlisted in reviving the Arab-Israeli peace effort and containing the spreading chaos in Iraq. Syria’s national interests in both areas at least partially intersect with those of the US and Israel. Olmert was right to sound the alarm about an Iran that continues to advance its nuclear capabilities while its president calls for Israel’s destruction.

For now, the most effective response would be a full-court diplomatic press, combined with an escalating menu of international sanctions until Iran agrees to halt uranium enrichment. With the threat from Iran so clear, this is no time to invent more reasons for not talking to Syria.