What would happen if American congressmen were to meet with Ismail Haniyeh or with Hamas members of parliament to discuss "Middle East affairs?" Would Israel boycott them? Would Israel activate its lobby in Washington to prevent their reelection?
Israel is not yet facing this difficult dilemma, but Egypt is. Last Sunday, four American congressmen met with members of Egypt's parliament, including Dr. Saad al-Katatni, head of the Muslim Brotherhood's parliamentary faction. This movement has been outlawed since 1954. Its members are hounded and arrested by the regime, which regards them as a threat to both it and Egyptian society. In accordance with the norms of open diplomacy, Egypt expected the American guests to honor the Egyptian boycott and refrain from meeting with members of a movement defined as illegal. The congressmen made it clear they were meeting with a representative of the Muslim Brotherhood in his capacity as a member of parliament and not as a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. "If so, why don't they meet with Palestinian members of parliament affiliated with Hamas?" complained Suleiman Awad, the spokesman for President Hosni Mubarak. After all, the status of Hamas in Israel is similar to that of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.
But apparently, what is permitted to American elected officials is prohibited to Israel, and what is permissible for the American regime has been rejected by Israel. Thus, while House Speaker Nancy Pelosi met last month with Bashar Assad, Israel continued to claim that Washington forbids it to conduct negotiations with Syria, until it was learned, about 10 days ago, that this policy had changed. Suddenly, Washington no longer objects, perhaps because it needs Syria for stabilizing the situation in Iraq. And while Israel is engaged in a mighty diplomatic struggle to impose additional sanctions on Iran, the U.S. opened the first public dialogue in 27 years with the regime of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and the dialogue will apparently continue. Slowly, the suit of armor behind which Israel chose to hide, the American policy that gave permission in some places and prohibited in others (obliging Israel to follow suit), is now in advanced stages of disintegration.
The U.S. and Israel admit they are locked in two wars that do not have a military solution. Both are searching for a partner to at least moderate, or stop, the firing of rockets from Gaza and the infernal attacks in Baghdad. Nearly 3,600 American soldiers have been killed in Iraq, and in Israel, people are being killed by rockets. On both fronts, the occupying governments do not seem to know what to do.
And here, in the special arena of the U.S., a light of insight has begun to flicker, indicating that perhaps negotiations with the enemy can produce political results. If until now Washington sufficed with conducting direct or indirect discourse with subversive organizations in Iraq after previously boycotting them entirely, the time has come for negotiating with the archenemy, Iran. And a country that talks with Iran is liable to talk with Syria, even if it recently advised Israel not to do so.
Israel is also entitled to feel liberated from the constraints American policy has imposed on it until now - even more so regarding the constraints Israel has imposed on itself. It is indeed difficult to judge how seriously Olmert is considering initiating a diplomatic process with Syria, as Aluf Benn reported in Haaretz. But the very fact that he is considering this is a positive sign demonstrating that Israel is capable of taking a few diplomatic breaths on its own.
Israel should now also encourage Egypt to work for a cease-fire on the Palestinian front - not only to enjoy another short period of quiet, but mainly to reassess the policy of boycott and siege, and to try the American method used in Iraq. After all, if you are prepared to conduct negotiations with Hamas about Gilad Shalit, you cannot refuse to negotiate about quiet in Sderot. And anyone who agrees to negotiate about quiet in Sderot certainly understands the price. The other possibility is that Israel will wait until the American congressmen decide, as in Egypt, to meet with members of Hamas. The price then will undoubtedly be higher.
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