JERUSALEM – Israel on Wednesday publicly pushed to open peace negotiations with Lebanon, seeking to add another initiative to an already burgeoning diplomatic roster that includes talks with some of the Jewish state’s foremost adversaries.
While Lebanon immediately indicated it has no desire for a deal with Israel, the overture came just a day after Israel agreed to a truce with the armed Islamist group Hamas that is to take effect early today in and around the Gaza Strip. Israel is also negotiating a prisoner exchange with Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite movement it fought to a standstill in 2006, and last month announced the resumption of long-stalled peace talks with Syria.
The sudden diplomatic activity represents a turnabout from just this spring, when Israel was leading the charge for the world to isolate – rather than engage – armed groups and Middle Eastern governments considered hostile to the West. In its policies and pronouncements, Israel favored sanctions over dialogue and threats of force over cease-fires.
The change in approach stems from factors both local and global, including the corruption scandal swirling around Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and the declining influence of the United States in its attempt to bring about an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal by the end of President Bush’s term in office. Israel’s diplomatic openness could influence the debate in the U.S. presidential campaign over when it makes sense to talk to one’s enemies and under what circumstances confrontation should give way to engagement.
“It’s quite extraordinary. You’d have to go back to the early 1990s to find a time when there was this level of activity,” said Yossi Alpher, a veteran Israeli negotiator and political analyst.
Underlying the most dramatic element of that activity, the Gaza truce, is a recognition that isolating Hamas has not worked, Alpher said.
The policy, formulated after the Islamist group won day-to-day control of the Palestinian Authority in January 2006 elections and deepened following its violent takeover of Gaza a year ago, involved political, military and economic pressure, the keystone of which was a tight siege on the narrow coastal strip. The United States vigorously backed that approach, hoping that worsening conditions in Gaza would lead its people to turn against Hamas rule.
“It was supposed to bring Hamas to its knees. But all it did was bring a lot of human suffering, which is on our conscience,” Alpher said.
While Hamas may not be as popular in Gaza today as it was a year ago, its control over the strip’s 1.5 million people appears undiminished. The group and its allies have continued to shower rockets across southern Israel on a daily basis.
Israel had considered launching a major military offensive to forcibly remove Hamas, and it still may take that route if the cease-fire fails. But military and civilian leaders alike concede that the cost would be great, with high casualties on both sides and Israeli forces in Gaza lacking an exit plan.
Instead, Israel on Tuesday opted for a truce, following months of Egyptian mediation.
The deal is slated to go into effect at 6 a.m. today, with Hamas vowing to halt the rocket fire and Israel pledging to end its military strikes.
The United States had recently come around to supporting the truce.
Hamas had its own reasons for wanting the truce. The deal has the potential to elevate the movement’s status in the Middle East and also gives it time to regroup.
“Israel has managed to kill Hamas operatives quicker than Hamas can replace them,” said Jonathan Rynhold, senior research fellow at the BESA Center for Strategic Studies outside Tel Aviv.
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