Robert Novak

WASHINGTON -- Coinciding with the Bush administration's tough talk about Syria, a senior Israeli official Monday exposed a smoking gun. Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz told the Tel Aviv newspaper Maariv: "We have a long list of issues we are thinking of demanding of the Syrians, and it would be best done through the Americans."

Mofaz's Hebrew-language interview was not widely distributed in Washington, but a few members of Congress who learned of it were stunned by its audacity. With Prime Minister Ariel Sharon long having urged changing Iraq's regime by force of U.S. arms, his government now hopes to ride the emerging American imperium to regional reconstruction along Israeli lines.

That is the goal of prominent Pentagon civilian officials who see virtual identity between U.S. and Israeli interests. Sharon's hopes for his agenda are buoyed by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's emergence. Vindicated by the spectacular success of American arms, Rumsfeld is the strongman of the Bush Cabinet who is directing the postwar transformation of the Middle East.

Gen. Mofaz, a career officer before becoming defense minister last October, is a plain-spoken paratrooper who has now revealed his country's grand design of riding American power to reach old goals. While Israel's military is the region's strongest, it has been unable to achieve Mofaz's long, unspecified wish list: removal of Syrian troops from Lebanon, ending Syrian support of anti-Israeli terrorist groups and effective Syrian disarmament. The biggest political-military failure in Israel's brief history was its Lebanese intervention.

Israel's goals conceivably can be "done through the Americans" in the wake of the awesome U.S. military performance. Syria's Bashar Assad is unlikely to follow Saddam Hussein's suicidal course of confrontation with Washington. Not supplied militarily by Moscow since the end of the Cold War, Syria's armed forces look weaker than Iraq's.

The problem is how to justify pressuring Syria. If it was hard to prove Iraq a clear danger to the U.S., making the case for Syria is much tougher. After the fall of Baghdad, warnings to Damascus were based on unverified complaints that weapons of mass destruction and Iraqi leaders had crossed the porous Iraqi-Syrian border. "There is no evidence," Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said last week, that such weapons were taken out of Iraq.

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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