To Speak to The Enemy?

Gerald Seib wrote a straightforward, clear, and to-the-point column in the Wall Street Journal on the "would you meet with leaders of rogue states" question haunting Barack Obama – using Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s approach towards Syria as a very good example of how to do things.

Israel Offers Diplomacy Lesson
June 10 2008, A2.

Now that the general election is (at last) upon us, Barack Obama has some explaining to do. Specifically, he will be pressed to explain anew when he would meet with the leaders of rogue states and unfriendly nations, a topic that has caused him some heartburn already.

As he ponders how to respond, Sen. Obama might take some tips from the way Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert approached Syria over the past year to open a line of communication. The Olmert overture is a classic case study in how to reach out to an unfriendly leader — as well as when not to do so.

Sen. Obama, of course, walked into controversy on this front when he was asked at a debate last July whether he would meet with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea "without precondition."

He quickly said yes — and now, presumably, wishes he hadn’t spoken quite so fast. While his answer gave voice to a widespread feeling that the Bush administration has undervalued diplomacy, it also has opened him up to regular criticism from his general election foe, Sen. John McCain, who uses the answer to paint Sen. Obama as both inexperienced and naïve about the rough world out there.

Somewhere between an open invitation to talk and an obstinate refusal to do so there is a wise answer to that debate question. Israel’s Mr. Olmert has shown roughly where it lies. Here’s how he found it:

Israel faces continuing and multiple threats, but the most grave ones come from Iran, whose leaders talk openly of wiping Israel off the map, and neighboring Syria, whose leaders have made an alliance of convenience with Iran.

The threat from Iran is indirect and long-term; the one from Syria is direct and immediate. Syrian soldiers next door are a problem for Israel, though they don’t pose a threat to the existence of the Jewish state. Far more insidious for Israel is Syria’s friendship with Iran, which has prompted the Syrian government to give support and free rein to the Iranian-supported Islamic radicals of Hezbollah and Hamas. They use Syria as a springboard to threaten Israel from Lebanon — which Syria treats like a protectorate — and the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

About a year ago, senior Israeli officials say, Mr. Olmert decided that breaking the Syrian-Iranian link was a strategic imperative. Judging there was no way to accomplish that by working through the Israel-haters atop Iran’s clerical regime, he decided to reach out instead to the secular president of Syria, Bashar Assad. In short, he sought a dialogue with his enemy.

This was the Olmert message to Syria, Israeli officials say: You have an alternative to friendship with Iran, and it can be good for you. Peace with Israel would translate into commercial relations with the West, international help to achieve real economic development, international respect and an end to enmity with the U.S. The price would be cutting ties to Iran, expulsion of terror groups from Damascus and an end to support for those attacking American forces in Iraq.

But how to deliver that message? A public call for direct talks with Syria wouldn’t work. Syria would reject it to save face with its radical friends, and Israeli citizens would demand to know what they were getting in return for lending legitimacy to President Assad.

So Mr. Olmert decided to find an indirect, and secret, channel to start the process. He chose Turkey, logical as a go-between because it is an Islamic country rooted in the West because of its economic and political ties to Europe. He flew to Turkey and enlisted Turkish leaders to deliver his message. Mr. Olmert even had the Turks tell Syria what the basis would be for moving on to direct talks. The ground rules would be the same as those of the 1991 Middle East peace conference in Madrid, which both Israel and Syria attended.

Crucially, Mr. Olmert also privately told the Bush administration what he was up to, Israeli officials say. The last thing Mr. Olmert needed was for his U.S. friends to be surprised by an overture that ultimately would need American cooperation.

The message was delivered — and Syria accepted it. There followed a series of indirect messages, until word of the talks leaked out last month. When the dialogue became public, Iran was outraged, the U.S. calm. The diplomatic dance continues, though whether it will lead to direct talks between Mr. Olmert and Mr. Assad is hard to know.

What are the lessons for Sen. Obama? The Israeli move confirms the value of reaching out to an enemy, which was the gist of the Obama impulse in answering that debate question.

But the Israeli overture also shows that timing is crucial and a clear agenda for any talks essential. It also shows that laying the groundwork to avoid surprises can be a slow and painstaking process.

Equally important is what Mr. Olmert decided not to do: He made no similar outreach to Iran, deciding there was simply no channel that would be useful for reasoning with that country’s hard-liners. Reaching out to Syria was a strategic choice, as was not reaching out to Iran. The lesson: Not all diplomacy is created equal.

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