Suddenly, after years of diplomatic stalemate on every front, Israel is talking deals, deals, deals, all up and down its famously rough neighborhood. Jerusalem is talking — indirectly, through third parties — with three enemies that were off-limits just months ago. It’s talking with Hamas, via Egypt, about a Gaza cease-fire to halt the shelling of the Negev. It’s talking with Hezbollah, via Germany, about a prisoner exchange on the Lebanese front. And it’s talking with Syria, via Turkey, about the possibility of a permanent peace treaty.
The Middle East has seen countless rounds of negotiations, of course. Some actually succeed. Israel’s peace with Egypt is nearing its fourth decade. The 1975 disengagement agreement with Syria has kept the Golan Heights quiet for 33 years. Agreements save lives.
During the past two decades, however, negotiations have produced little beyond violence and recriminations. The mood has so soured that the very idea of negotiating is seen in many Israeli and Jewish circles as a sign of weakness. Merely to speak of seeking peace risks accusations of siding with the enemy.
But something has changed in the past few weeks. Long-stalled negotiations are bearing fruit. Agreements are taking shape. Most striking, Arab leaders known for their rejectionist rhetoric are beginning to speak of Israel as a potential partner in peace.
Some of their talk is startlingly bold. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, interviewed by a newspaper in India earlier this month, discussed why he thinks Israelis “have decided to move toward peace.” That’s new. Up to now he hasn’t been known to acknowledge that Israel wanted peace at all.
Days later, Assad’s deputy foreign minister, Faysal Mekdad, spoke to the Chicago Tribune about the peace he sees taking shape — “when people can move freely between Syria, Israel, Palestine, Jordan and Egypt.” Damascus, Mekdad said, has been warning Hamas and Hezbollah that Syria is “not like Iran.” Iran, he said, “believes in the destruction of Israel, while Syria believes in negotiating with Israel.”
Even Hamas, the terrorist organization pledged to destroy Israel, is talking differently. Midlevel Hamas leaders have been saying for months that they would accept a cease-fire lasting two generations if Israel would withdraw from the territories and permit Palestinian statehood — the same concession Israel is already offering to Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas. This week, Hamas’s hard-line, Damascus-based chief, Khaled Meshal, told the news agency Reuters that a “lasting truce” would “come as a relief for Israel if it commits,” as Reuters paraphrased it. That’s new. Up to now he’s never expressed the least interest in what’s good for Israel.
The Israeli public’s initial response to the emerging deals has been chilly. Ceding the Golan, even for a peace treaty, remains unpopular. Negotiating with Hamas is said by critics to have undone all of Israel’s hard work mobilizing an international quarantine of the Islamist party. A cease-fire, critics say, will merely give Hamas time to regroup and rearm. Israel’s only recourse, they say, is to send in troops to recapture Gaza, crush the rocketeers and topple the Hamas regime — and the sooner the better.
All these arguments are made in the name of Israeli security, but Israel’s security brass, oddly, doesn’t agree. The military views a major incursion into Gaza as a costly slog that would yield only short-term relief. The alternative, to retake Gaza and dig in, would land Israel in a long, Vietnam-style quagmire. And it might not even stop the rockets. Gaza wasn’t quiet before Israel disengaged. Better to try bargaining first, to see if it works.
Perhaps the oddest critique is the claim circulating in the Israeli press that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert knows he’s hurting Israel by making deals with terrorists — but he’s doing it anyway to divert attention from his legal troubles. In fact, Olmert is defying public opinion, not pandering to it. The public has lost faith in diplomacy. Olmert is the first Israeli prime minister ever to win office on a platform openly promising territorial compromise. But with all his other troubles, he may have only a few months left to follow through before he’s out. Hence the rush.
If there is pandering here, it’s Olmert’s cheap feints rightward — approving new settlement construction, failing to dismantle illegal outposts — in order to soothe restive hawks and save his shaky coalition.
In reality, Olmert is under attack not for betraying his public but for the opposite: keeping his campaign promises. If his actions look suspicious, that’s because too many of us have forgotten what it means to seek peace and pursue it.