Why Israel Is Talking to Its Enemies

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UPI / Landov

Israeli Pprime Minister Ehud Olmert

When President George W. Bush appeared before the Israeli Knesset recently and denounced those who appease "terrorists and radicals," it was seen back home as a swipe against Democratic contender Barack Obama for saying that the U.S. should talk to its enemies. But his audience of Israeli legislators, who interrupted Bush's speech at least 14 times with thunderclaps of applause, interpreted it otherwise. They saw it as the American President's unswerving support of the Jewish nation on its 60th anniversary. Nevertheless, under instructions from Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Israel envoys have been carrying out discreet talks with the very "radicals and terrorists" that Bush was warning against in his speech: Syria, the Lebanese militia Hizballah and the Palestinian militant group Hamas.

It is partly a measure of how far the Bush Administration's stature has fallen that even staunch allies like the Israelis are now ignoring White House commandments. But it may also be an act of desperation by the embattled Israeli leader, who sees no choice but to rebuff the U.S. if he wants to win back popular Israeli support.

Shrugging off Bush's warning against "appeasing" its enemies by negotiating with them, the Israeli government is engaging in Egyptian-brokered cease-fire talks with Hamas, the militant Islamic rulers of the Gaza strip. At the same time, through Turkish diplomats, it is sending out feelers to Damascus to discuss Israel's possible return of the Golan Heights in exchange for Syria's cutting off its support and sanctuary for Palestinian militant leaders from Hamas and Islamic Jihad. As one Israeli official told TIME: "For us, peace doesn't mean embassies in Damascus and Tel Aviv, but an end to Syria's destructive roles. Hamas has its headquarters in Damascus, and Syria backs Hizballah."

In addition, through the Germans, the Israelis are trying to swap Palestinian and Lebanese prisoners for two Israeli soldiers (for whom there is still no proof of life) captured in 2006 by Hizballah.

Olmert's many critics say that talking to the enemy is merely a way to draw the Israeli public's attention away from a bribery and corruption scandal that is engulfing the Prime Minister. On Tuesday, a key witness, a U.S. businessman, described in a pre-trial hearing how he gave Olmert envelopes stuffed with cash. Olmert insists they were for campaign funds. "I have never taken a bribe, not have I unlawfully pocketed money," Olmert told reporters in early May.

To be sure, it would take a strong leader to pull off a peace deal with even one of these foes, never mind all three. And as the possibility of an indictment on corruption charges against him grows, the task becomes even more difficult. Even if his intentions are honest, his timing is awful, since he is now politically weak and beset by too many rivals who want his blood on the floor. Moreover, many of his generals and intelligence chiefs share Bush's opinion that Israel ought to hang tough against terrorists.

What are the chances of any of these negotiations bearing fruit? Working out a cease-fire with Hamas in Gaza is the top priority — and the least likely to happen, according to Israeli government sources. At most it would merely buy Olmert breathing space: Palestinian missiles would stop falling on Israeli homes and clinics near Gaza. But such a truce would boost Hamas in the eyes of Palestinians and legitimize it in the wider Arab world, something that Israel doesn't want.

In an interview with TIME editors on May 22, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni — considered a possible contender for Olmert's job — sought to distance herself from Olmert's decision to explore a truce with Hamas. She warned against weakening the tough international stance against Hamas, whose charter pledges the destruction of the Jewish state: "The international community demands that Israel ease the lives of the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip by opening the border crossings, but Hamas attacks the border crossings and by doing so it proves that it has no sense of responsibility towards Gaza's inhabitants." Following reports that the French had been quietly speaking to the Islamic militants, Livni warned against giving legitimacy to Hamas with such talks. "It undermines the pragmatic elements within the Palestinian Authority [led by moderate President Mahmoud Abbas] and damages the peace process," she said.

Through the Egyptians, Hamas is offering to stop firing rockets onto southern Israel's towns and farming communities. In return, Hamas wants Israel to cease its targeted assassinations of militant leaders and to lift an international blockade on Gaza's 1.5 million Palestinians, imposed in June 2007 after Hamas seized power in the coastal enclave.

The on-again, off-again talks, now in their fourth week, are foundering partly because Hamas wants to swap a kidnapped Israeli soldier, Corporal Gilad Shalit, for over 400 Palestinians inside Israeli jails. The Israelis say many of those on Hamas's list are terrorists and refuse to release them. A Hamas source told TIME that his organization believes that Israel is stalling on the truce, hoping to weaken the militants with regular air attacks on Gaza so that it will soften its terms for a truce.

A deal with Syria, meanwhile, would also be a boon to Olmert; many Israelis would welcome it, and it might drive a wedge between the Syrians and their radical allies, Iran, Hizballah and Hamas. But Israelis familiar with the negotiations in Ankara say that the ultimate goal of Syrian President Bashir al-Assad is to edge closer to the U.S. "The Syrian priority isn't the return of the Golan Heights from Israel; it's reaching out to Washington," says this source. But since Bush is refusing to speak directly to a club member of the "Axis of Evil," it's doubtful that these peace feelers between Israel and Syria will amount to much. So for all the talking, Olmert may still have to spend his remaining days in office fending off possible corruption charges rather than making any serious breakthrough with the enemies that surround his country. With reporting by Jamil Hamad/Bethlehem