Israeli Diplomacy / The Summer of Talk

The prisoner-body exchange between Israel and Hezbollah should be seen in its wider context. After several years of boycotts and isolation, this summer saw the walls of dialogue breached. Israel renewed its contacts with Syria, agreed on a cease-fire with Hamas in the Gaza Strip, exchanged prisoners with Hezbollah and offered to negotiate with Lebanon over the fate of the Shaba Farms - and all this as negotiations with the Palestinian Authority over a final-status agreement continued apace.

The U.S. administration has joined the nuclear negotiations that the European Union is conducting with Iran and made it clear that it opposes any Israeli strike on Iran's nuclear facilities.

What on earth is going on here? Are George W. Bush and Ehud Olmert, in the days and weeks before the end of their terms of office, trying to do anything they can to record some sort of political accomplishment, to avoid being remembered as leaders who led their countries into failed wars? Or have they simply recognized the limitations of force and been left with no choice but to talk to the "axis of evil" without the enemy first altering its behavior? Iran is still enriching uranium, Hezbollah and Hamas are stockpiling missiles, Syria is giving its support to them all - and, suddenly, everyone is a legitimate partner for negotiations.

American officials mock their Israeli counterparts any time they recite long-winded monologues about "the struggle between moderates and extremists" in the Middle East. How does this struggle exist in the same universe as Israel's agreement to talk to Hamas and Hezbollah? the Americans ask. But their excuses for changing American policy vis-a-vis Iran sound exactly like Olmert's excuses for agreeing to a cease-fire with Hamas and a prisoner exchange with Hezbollah. The Americans and the Israelis insist that it is not dialogue, that the tough policy remains intact and that they do not believe the other side.

Any one who is looking for proof that the policy has changed should examine the heroic speeches that Olmert delivered in the days after the soldiers were kidnapped and taken to Gaza and Lebanon. It seems he genuinely believed, perhaps because of his of lack experience, that he would succeed in smashing the tradition that his predecessors set and would manage to change the rules of the game if he responded forcefully. He clearly wanted to get better terms from the kidnappers than his predecessor did, Ariel Sharon. Now, with the return of the soldiers' bodies from Lebanon and ahead of the Shalit deal in the south, his words from two years ago sound wise and naive.

Israel paid the price of the kidnapping in the form of the disaster it brought on itself when it launched the Second Lebanon War. The release of Samir Kuntar, along with four other Lebanese prisoners and bodies, and the release of Palestinian prisoners that will follow shortly, are just the last installment of the price. This is just the way things work in the Middle East. The expensive price list of prisoner-exchange deals between Israel and the Arabs was determined during previous wars, and Olmert, like all his predecessors, did not manage to change it. His proposal to set new rules for such situations in the future was worthless. After all, Hassan Nasrallah and Khaled Meshal will not be obligated by any "ordered, consensual and rigid rules" that some Israeli panel determines.

The talks with Syria raise a different dilemma. Bashar Assad was the star of the show in Paris this week, at the Mediterranean conference. Is a satiated Syria, which is accepted by the West, better or worse for Israel than a Syria that is isolated and humiliated? Perhaps the previous policy of isolation prodded Syria deeper into the arms of Iran and Nasrallah? The payback that Israel got for agreeing to lift Syria's isolation was a deal with Hamas and Hezbollah - who certainly do not want to carry the burden of "resistance" to Israel alone, while their Syrian allies are living it up in Paris.

The prevalent explanation in Israel of the deals with Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas is that Israel is trying to "clear the land" and separate Iran from its traditional allies, ahead of a possible military strike against Iran's nuclear facilities. But it is doubtful whether Israeli warplanes are on the tarmac, their engines ticking over as they wait for the order to attack Natanz - especially after the Americans gave such a public warning to Israel not to attack, by means of leaks and messages relayed in recent weeks. It is possible that the high price of oil was behind these leaks, or that they were concerned that Olmert, desperate to save his premiership, would do something rash. And perhaps these messages were simply the result of the American military establishment and the political leadership objecting to any confrontation with Iran.

Either way, the Americans are now talking very differently and are suddenly rediscovering the moderate voices within the Iranian leadership. A critical editorial here, a statement by a former foreign minister there (in which he admits that the Holocaust actually happened, but asks that it not be used as an excuse to repress the Palestinians). Perhaps there is someone we can talk to in Tehran and we shouldn't be in such a hurry to attack.

The U.S. administration told the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem in advance that it was sending a senior diplomat to talks with Iran, but only did so hours before the news was due to be published anyway. There were no consultation and no coordination. Yesterday, a senior State Department official visited Jerusalem carrying messages that were designed to placate Israel over the planned meeting with the Iranians. If it is a success, the next stage could be the opening of an American representative office in Tehran, with the goal of being able to "talk to the Iranian people."

But until that happens, the danger of regional war is still in the air and multichannel dialogue is still no guarantee that it will not happen.