When To Negotiate: A Study In Confusion


We need a scorecard these days to keep track of which enemies Israel is negotiating with, which it isn’t and why. And the same goes for the U.S.

This past week came news that the Olmert government was in talks with Syria, its longtime intractable enemy to the north, through the mediation of Turkey. Proponents of the negotiations point out that by ceding the Golan Heights — a given, if the talks are to go anywhere — Israel could draw Syria away from the orbit of Iran, which would be a major accomplishment, and could have Damascus curtail its support of Hamas and Hezbollah.

Critics insist, though, that there is no indication that Syrian President Bashar Assad is willing to do any of the bove, and that there is no point in giving up the strategic benefits of the Golan Heights without such firm assurances. Besides, such talks have been held before by the last several Israeli administrations and nothing has come of it — so why now?

The Syrian news comes on top of the ongoing negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, renewed amidst much fanfare in Annapolis, Md., last November. President George W. Bush keeps saying that a peace deal is possible this year, but wishful thinking has not brought about any signs of real progress to date, and the clock is ticking. Is this just another exercise in futility and worse than no talks at all?

Meanwhile, Israel refuses to deal with Hamas, the terror group that controls Gaza and remains committed to Israel’s destruction. Israel’s policy seems to make sense, and is supported and held by the U.S. Yet we keep reading about a deal being worked out between Israel and Hamas, with Egypt as the go-between. It would bring about a lengthy hudna, or respite from rocket attacks on Israel, and return hundreds of jailed Hamas members in exchange for kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. And there were reports this week of a deal between Israel and Hezbollah that would free the killer of a four year-old Israeli girl and her father in exchange for kidnapped soldiers Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, dead or alive.

So what’s the story?

As for the U.S., Bush stirred the American political pot during his recent visit to Israel when, in his Knesset speech, he decried those who “seem to believe we should negotiate with terrorists and radicals,” asserting that “we have an obligation to call this what it is — the false comfort of appeasement.”

“Appeasement” is a loaded word, of course, harking back to British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain ceding part of Czechoslovakia to Hitler as part of the Munich Pact of 1938, now seen as a foolish and futile act of political cowardice in an attempt to halt the Nazi leader’s aggression.

White House officials said Bush was referring to those like former President Jimmy Carter, who recently met with the head of Hamas. But Democratic leaders assumed Bush meant Democratic frontrunner Sen. Barack Obama, and they blasted the president for playing politics while overseas.

Complicating the issue further is that the U.S., under Bush, has gone from shunning North Korea to re-entering negotiations, while continuing to refuse to talk to Iran, another member of the “axis of evil.” And Washington seems annoyed that Israel is talking to Syria again, since the U.S. still lists Syria on its terror list. But why should the U.S. object to such talks if Israel, with far more at stake, is willing to negotiate?

Which leads us to ask: is there any logical pattern or consistent policy in all of this? Does a nation show strength and flexibility by sitting down with its enemies, or is it always a sign of weakness and fear?

On the one hand, one only makes peace with enemies. On the other hand, making concessions — in Israel’s case in recent years, giving up land by leaving southern Lebanon and Gaza — with nothing to show for it, only emboldens one’s foes.

Obama has had a hard time convincing people of his distinction between holding talks with enemy states like Iran, Syria or Cuba “without preconditions” while refusing to talk to groups like Hamas or Hezbollah because they are not states and crave legitimacy. He’s been criticized by Sen. John McCain for appearing too naïve in his willingness to talk to autocratic leaders, but it turns out McCain favored talking to Hamas after it won the Palestinian elections in 2006. And he may have been right, though he’s taken a tougher stand since.

All of this is confusing, but the bottom line is that when it comes to negotiations with the goal of reaching peace, pragmatism trumps principle. If the risks make sense, proceed cautiously, but each case is unique and should be based on its own merits. That’s why it is wise to never say “never,” as in, “we will never negotiate with terrorists.”

Israel looks hypocritical when it publicly refuses to talk to Hamas while dealing regularly with Hamas mayors and other officials on a local level and conducting private talks with the terror group through Cairo.

Decisions about who to talk to and who not, and when, and under what conditions, are extremely difficult and delicate, and are usually best seen in the light of hindsight. The U.S. reversal on its Libya policy — dealing with Col. Muammar Khaddafy after years of refusing to do so — seems to have been a success, with the Libyan leader changing his terrorist ways and allying himself more closely with the West. But Israel took part in the Oslo peace process for years, concluding too late that PLO Leader Yasir Arafat had no intention of keeping his word or making even minimal compromises.

In the end, then, there is no hard-and-fast rule for whom to deal with and when, other than what will best serve your interests. And it’s important to keep in mind that even failed talks can be worth the effort, proving that a government tried to negotiate with an enemy before concluding that a more aggressive approach was necessary.

In the world today, talk is always preferable, but the use of force must remain an option.

was editor and publisher of The Jewish Week from 1993 to 2019. Follow him at garyrosenblatt.substack.com.