What harm is there in talking? I’m sure experts on the fine art of diplomacy would offer all kinds of complicated answers to this question, but for this non-expert, the question still remains. What harm is there in just talking? What, exactly, is the down side?
At the moment, Israel’s government is debating this very issue vis a vis the question of talks with Syria. In recent statements, Syrian President Bashar Assad has stated he is ready to talk peace with Israel, and his overtures have given rise to a remarkable spectrum of reactions from Israeli leaders. As Israeli columnist Gershom Gorenberg wrote in the Jewish Forward earlier this month, these responses are particularly fascinating because they don’t break down predictably along Israeli political lines. (Those opposed to talks with Syria include Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and the dovish Labor Party member Ephraim Sneh. Those advocating talks include Olmert’s own Defense Minister Amir Peretz and Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter, as well as the Likud Party’s former military Chief of Staff, Moshe Ya’alon).
Since I’m not a pundit, I won’t venture a guess as to whether or not Assad’s overtures are genuine. (For those interested in further analyses on this subject, I highly recommend Syria expert Joshua Landis’ blog SyriaComment). I will only ask this: what would be the harm in finding out?
The fact that this question is being publicly considered by Israel’s political establishment can only be seen as a positive and healthy sign. Alas, it seems to be a discussion our own government is incapable of having.
Indeed, the Bush administration has made no secret of its desire to isolate Syria internationally. Just last month, Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice called on other nations to join the US in imposing sanctions on Syria, though she didn’t specify what exactly she had in mind. Our government has also made no secret of its goal to remake the Middle East in its image. Some suggest, alarmingly, that there is still a hope in the Bush administration for a regime change opportunity in Syria. (See SyriaComment on this point).
There are indications that Olmert’s unwillingness to respond to Assad stems primarily from US pressure. So this is what it’s come to: an ideologically-driven US administration might actively be discouraging Israel from even entertaining the possibility of talks with a potential partner in peace. These days, the prospect of the US serving as an authentic broker in the Mideast peace process feels little more than a bygone dream.
To those who believe that engaging with one’s enemies is simply appeasement, I would respond: where exactly has unilateralism gotten us? It is truly a sign of the times that none other than former Secretary of State James Baker recently remarked in an ABC interview: “I believe in talking to your enemies. In my view, it’s not appeasement to talk to your enemies.”
Amen to that. Where there’s talk, there’s hope.