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Israel Negotiates With Radicals And Terrorists

How would our president inform the Knesset about this breaking news? It looks like the Olmert/Livni/Barak regime has been lured in by "the false comfort of appeasement," since they've decided to "negotiate with terrorists and radicals, as if some ingenious argument will persuade them they have been wrong all along." Specifically, in what cannot be coincidences, news broke yesterday that the Israeli government is negotiating a cease-fire agreement in Gaza with Hamas (Egypt is brokering the talks), and then broke today that the Israeli government is in negotiations with Syria over a long-term peace treaty (with Turkey as brokers in that deal). The latter negotiations are the first time in eight years that Israel has attempted substantial diplomatic engagement with Syria, while the former is a profound volte-face on longstanding Israeli policy (now sustained with the charade of Ehud Olmert admitting publicly only that he is in talks with Egypt).

Jewcy has a few questions about the affair we'd like to find some answers to:

1) Given the president's recent public statements, do these latest moves by Olmert signal a repudiation of Washington? Or has the US government silently shifted positions without shifting rhetoric (see also this report from last spring that US pressure scuppered earlier efforts at Israeli-Syrian diplomacy)?

Ezzedin Choukri-Fiske of the International Crisis Group argues that US approval is essential for any negotiations to get off the ground, and so is pessimistic that anything can come of the talks before January 2009 at the earliest. Paul Salem of the Carnegie Endowment suggests a third route, namely, "The Americans are not obstructing it, but they are taking a wait-and-see approach. "The Bush administration doesn't want to give anything to the Syrians unless they give something first."

2) Apropos of which, did either side make any concessions before coming to the table?

Eyal Zisser of Tel Aviv University doubts that full negotiations could have resumed without an Israeli commitment to withdrawal from the Golan Heights. Shmuel Rosner argues that Syria's objective is neither talking to Israel or taking back control of the Golan Heights, but talking to the US and tightening control of Lebanon.

3) Speaking of which, any Israeli-Syrian negotiations are inextricably tied to the status of Lebanon, Hezbollah, and Iran. And at this particular moment, Hezbollah has essentially prevailed over the Lebanese government, thereby amplifying Iranian power and influence. What effect did that have on either the timing or the announcement of the Syrian negotiations?

4) And what about the Syrian side? Did Israel's strike at Syria's nuclear reactor last fall prompt Assad to come calling diplomatically? What about the chatter that surfaced recently in the Jerusalem Post to the effect that President Bush is determined to attack Iran before he leaves office? (The White House denies the report, though it isn't just opponents of the administration that are convinced an attack on Iran is coming.) Even if the rumors are bogus, might they still have been what spurred Assad to action?

5) What if any domestic political objectives is Olmert trying to achieve? His approval ratings are abysmal, which argues for some sort of popularity-enhancing diplomatic coup. But Olmert has given himself a very narrow line to walk: Israelis "prefer war over ceasefire with Hamas" by 56 to 33 percent, and though 57 percent favor negotiations with Syria, 54 percent oppose a Golan withdrawal that might have been (or might still be) a precondition for negotiations, and 70 percent believe "Israel cannot handle holding negotiations with both Syria and the Palestinians at the same time."

6) What about the roles of Turkey and Egypt? It used to be that the United States arbitrated all negotiations between Israel and its neighbors. Is Israel's new reliance on moderate governments in Muslim countries an expression of confidence — i.e. Israel feels secure enough to engage in diplomacy without its strongest and only unequivocal ally present? Or is it an expression of desperation — i.e. Israel feels it has no choice but to negotiate, and if the US won't be party, Israel will fall back on whatever alternatives it can find?

7) What does Israeli negotiation with Hamas, even through back-channels and without public acknowledgment, bode for Fatah and for Mahmoud Abbas in particular? If Israel comes to recognize Hamas as its negotiating partner over Palestine, de facto if not de jure, wouldn't such a development freeze the official Palestinian Authority out of its remaining claims to power?

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