Israel and Syria hold peace talks; Hezbollah wins big in deal with Lebanese government.

Israel and Syria hold peace talks; Hezbollah wins big in deal with Lebanese government.

Israel and Syria hold peace talks; Hezbollah wins big in deal with Lebanese government.

A summary of what's in the major U.S. newspapers.
May 22 2008 6:11 AM

Bush Who?

The New York Timesleads with the announcement by the Israeli and Syrian governments that the two countries are holding indirect peace talks through Turkish mediators. The talks mark the first time the two countries have seriously negotiated since 2000 and seem to be a clear attempt by Israel to isolate Iran. But the prospects of a peace treaty, which could return the Golan Heights to Syria, seem bleak. The Wall Street Journal leads its world-wide newsbox with the agreement reached between Hezbollah and the weak Lebanese government. After five days of negotiations in Qatar, Hezbollah came out the winner because the Shiite militant group gained veto power in the Cabinet of a new government. USA Todayleads with a look at how Iraq is shaping up to become one of the  top buyers of U.S. arms as it goes through a process of modernizing its military equipment. Over the past year, the Iraqi government has committed almost $3 billion for American weapons and equipment.

The Washington Postleads with news that the House overwhelmingly voted to override President Bush's veto of the $307 billion farm bill. But an embarrassing "legislative glitch" means the second override in Bush's tenure didn't really count. A House clerk didn't include a section of the bill when it was sent to the White House, which Republicans called a "monumental Democrat screw-up." Now, it turns out that the House overrode a bill that the president never actually vetoed so "Congress is likely to start the whole process again." The Los Angeles Timesleads with American Airlines announcing that it will start charging most domestic passengers $15 to check their first bag. The new fee takes effect June 15 and comes two weeks after many major airlines started charging $25 to check a second bag. American Airlines also said it will be raising other fees, cutting flights, and laying off workers to "remain viable" as oil prices continue to increase. Other airlines are expected to quickly follow in an industry that analysts say could post a $7.2 billion loss this year.

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Syria and Israel first broached the idea of reigniting peace talks in February 2007, and the latest round of meetings began on Monday in Istanbul, where negotiators from both sides have been speaking through Turkish mediators. The announcement that the two countries are talking was met with skepticism, particularly since the Syrian president had previously said direct negotiations would probably never happen without help from the U.S. government. Many in Israel also sensed a whiff of political maneuvering and quickly said Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was trying to take attention away from an ongoing bribery investigation that could lead to his resignation. Many doubt that the unpopular prime minister has the political capital to go through with the negotiations, which could involve returning the Golan Heights to Syria, a move that the vast majority of Israelis oppose.

In Lebanon, the deal between Hezbollah and the government was reached less than two weeks after the militant group "flashed its military might" (WSJ) when the government threatened to cut a secret communications network. Hezbollah responded by deploying fighters in Beirut and quickly defeated pro-government militias. The fighting killed a total of 67 people, and the Lebanese government said yesterday it had no choice but to accept the deal with Hezbollah if it wanted to avoid civil war in a country that has been mired in political conflict for the past 18 months. Now Hezbollah has reached its goal of having an influential role in the government. The move also strengthens Iran and Syria, Hezbollah's allies. But the WP emphasizes that the deal "was more a respite than resolution" since no one thinks it will actually bring an end to the current crisis in Lebanon.

The negotiations in Turkey and the deal reached in Qatar clearly marked a blow to the Bush administration and its efforts to isolate Iran and Syria. The NYT says the U.S. government initially opposed the talks between Israel and Syria and only "yielded when it became clear that Israel was determined to go ahead." And while the Bush administration officially offered tepid support for the deal, many point out that the U.S. government had frequently pushed Lebanon not to make concessions to Hezbollah.

All this adds up to the inescapable conclusion that "[j]ust days after President Bush returned from the Middle East, the Middle East is moving beyond the Bush administration," the WP's Robin Wright poignantly notes in an analysis piece. And it's not just in those two countries. The United States is notably not a player "across the board" in the Middle East, one analyst said. Experts emphasize this is related to Bush's "lame duck status," although it's also clear that more countries in the region are simply not listening to the United States and are openly making moves that go against the Bush administration's stated strategy. But the truth is that even as Bush espouses lofty rhetoric about not talking to enemies, his own administration "has shown a sliding definition of just when it is beneficial to talk to whom," notes the NYT's Helene Cooper. During Bush's presidency, the United States has held direct negotiations with Libya, made direct overtures to North Korea, and even does business with the Syrian government. "I'd rather be right than consistent," a Bush official succinctly explained.

As the price of crude oil broke its fourth record in a row yesterday and reached $133.17 a barrel, the WSJ fronts a look at how the International Energy Agency is preparing to predict that future supply could be much less than they had previously thought. The results won't be known until November, but the energy watchdog had previously been consistent about predicting that the supply of oil would be able to keep up with demand. Now it's not so sure, and that doubt could send prices skyrocketing even further. "This is very important, because the IEA is treated as the world's only serious independent guardian of energy data and forecasts," one analyst explained.

The WP's Robert Novak says Sen. John McCain "is not about to disarm" in his campaign against Sen. Barack Obama and notes that for the next few months, "Republicans will explore the mind-set of this young man who is a stranger to most Americans." Not surprisingly, that means Americans can expect to hear more about Obama's association with William Ayers, a former leader of the Weather Underground. In a sign of what's to come, the McCain campaign is preparing to bring in Tim Griffin, "a protégé of Karl Rove," to do opposition research. If Griffin's name sounds familiar, it's because he was a key part of the U.S. attorneys controversy and has been tied to vote-caging schemes.

In the NYT's op-ed page, Nathan Thrall and Jesse Wilkins offer an interesting history lesson about President John F. Kennedy's meeting with Nikita Khrushchev in 1961. Many urged Kennedy to hold off on the meeting, but the president ignored them and "was pummeled by the Soviet leader" for two days because he "was no match as a sparring partner." Khrushchev said Kennedy was "too intelligent and too weak" and then proceeded to begin erecting the Berlin Wall and making plans for nuclear missiles in Cuba. Kennedy's famous quote, "let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate," has figured prominently in the presidential campaign and has often been invoked by Sen. Barack Obama. But Obama "should heed the lesson that Kennedy learned in his first year in office: sometimes there is good reason to fear to negotiate."

Daniel Politi has been contributing to Slate since 2004 and wrote the Today’s Papers column from 2006 to 2009. Follow him on Twitter.