Talking With the Enemy


Published May 22, 2008, issue of May 30, 2008.
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There’s something almost comical in the timing of announcements last week that Israel had achieved diplomatic breakthroughs with foes on its northern and southern fronts. The word came out during the very week that Republicans were mounting their fiercest attacks yet on liberals who favor negotiating with those same enemies. Once again, Israel’s self-appointed defenders in this country were out peddling notions of what’s good for Israel that bear little resemblance to what Israel actually wants. Liberals, thrown on the defensive, were absurdly forced to pledge, in the name of Israel’s defense, that they would never do precisely what Israel itself is doing. Through it all, the main target was the Jewish voter, who is apparently presumed too dumb to know the difference.

The battlefield was the presidential campaign. Allies of the presumptive Republican nominee, John McCain, were bashing the Democratic frontrunner, Barack Obama, for telling an interviewer he would “certainly” seek in his first year to negotiate with Iran’s leaders, without preconditions. Obama was called all sorts of names, the kindest of which was “naive.” Critics said he probably would talk even to Hamas, the object of a worldwide boycott. Obama said he wouldn’t.

President Bush raised the heat during a visit to Jerusalem. Addressing the Knesset, he charged that people who favor negotiating with terrorists are guilty of “appeasement” of the Chamberlain-in-Munich sort. Israelis applauded him warmly, taking his words as a vow to resist Israel’s enemies. But they didn’t take him too literally. At that moment, Israel was busy negotiating with two parties that Bush considers terrorist: Syria in the north and the Islamic extremist group Hamas in the south.

Israel’s reasons for negotiating are simple. It faces a deadly and mounting threat from Iran, which is trying to encircle Israel with extremist entities under its control. The ring runs from Hamas-controlled Gaza through Lebanon, now Hezbollah-controlled, to Syria, Iran’s key ally. Israel hopes to break the circle by wooing away some of its pieces. The prize, isolating Iran, is invaluable, if the price is right. Talks so far indicate that the price will be acceptable.

On the southern front, Israel has been negotiating for months with Hamas over a cease-fire and return of a captured Israeli soldier. Israel denies it’s a negotiation, but there’s nothing else to call it. The shuttle mediator is Egypt’s powerful intelligence minister, Omar Suleiman. His original goal was the release of the soldier, Gilad Shalit. Contacts expanded more recently into a cease-fire negotiation, as Israel tired of the steady rocket fire from Gaza and Hamas tired of Israel’s attempts to stop it. Nothing Israel has done to quell the rockets has worked. The army says it could slow the fire with a massive ground action in Gaza, but the cost would be high to both sides — including diplomatic repercussions that Jerusalem would rather avoid. Israel figures that if it tries a cease-fire and fails, as expected, the diplomatic costs of an invasion decline sharply. If the truce succeeds, so much the better.

In the north, prospects are more clear-cut. Israel and Syria have negotiated on and off for years. Syria has made it clear that it wants the Golan Heights back and will sign a peace treaty to get them. Israel’s military and intelligence establishment is virtually unanimous that peace with Syria, even a cold peace, is far more valuable strategically than holding defensive positions on the heights. The talks have broken down repeatedly over details, usually when larger forces were intervening. But they’ve always been renewed, because every Israeli leader, from Yitzhak Rabin through Benjamin Netanyahu to Ehud Barak and now Olmert, has understood their importance. It’s time we did the same.

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