Israel trying the diplomatic route to isolate belligerent Iran

The Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem.
The Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem.

JERUSALEM — This has been a busy month for Israeli diplomats.

As Israeli negotiators flew to Turkey for a second round of indirect peace talks with their Syrian counterparts, another Israeli official headed to Germany to consult with intermediaries about a major prisoner exchange with Hezbollah.

While Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert sought to open peace talks with Lebanon, one of his top advisers rushed to Cairo, Egypt, to sign off on a six-month truce with Hamas forces in the Gaza Strip.

Israeli and Palestinian leaders joined Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for a rare three-way meeting meant to inject some momentum into the Bush administration's attempts to secure a peace deal by year's end.

Many observers had predicted that this would be another summer of war for Israel and its adversaries across the Middle East. Instead, Israel is starting the sweltering season by pursuing talks with some of its most intractable foes.

The nascent negotiations represent Israel's most concerted diplomatic effort so far to blunt the expanding influence of Iran by striking deals with some of Tehran's allies.

"There's a real strategic imperative to undermine the Iranian camp and build up a counter-coalition," said Mark Heller, a leading researcher at Israel's Institute for National Security Studies.

Just about the only major adversary Israel isn't try to court these days is Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Instead, Israel appears to be laying the groundwork for a possible military strike meant to cripple Iran's nuclear program if international diplomatic pressure fails.

On Friday, Israeli officials refused to discuss a report in The New York Times that it had carried out a major military exercise over the Mediterranean Sea that appeared to be a practice run for a possible attack on Iran.

"It shouldn't surprise anyone that we're training and preparing operationally, and it should not in any way be interpreted as we are going to attack Iran," said Yossi Alpher, a former Israeli intelligence official who runs the political Web site "Any self-respecting armed force prepares itself for all likely contingencies."

Some Israeli analysts view Olmert's political moves as an attempt to divert attention from an unfolding corruption probe that could force him from power.

But that would be a simplistic view of the situation, said Daniel Levy, a former Israeli negotiator who runs the Middle East Initiative at The New America Foundation, a research center in Washington.

"Israel is finally addressing the ability of Iran to exert pressure," Levy said. "I think it's a smart move."

Israel's dealings with Hamas in Gaza are following a pattern similar to its dealings with Iran.

For months, Israel has threatened to launch a major military invasion of Gaza to uproot the entrenched Hamas forces that have solidified control since they staged a military uprising last summer that routed outmatched forces loyal to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

But Israel's threats, combined with a suffocating economic blockade, haven't undermined Hamas' power. Instead, the Islamist hard-liners have received military training and financial backing from Iran.

Now, with Egypt serving as patient mediator, Israel has agreed to a six-month cease-fire with Hamas.

Even if the truce fails to achieve one of Israel's main goals — securing the release of its soldier Gilad Shalit — it could bring some short-term calm to Israeli communities near the Gaza Strip border.

Although Israeli leaders say the talks don't confer political legitimacy to Hamas, many analysts see them as a triumph for the Islamist forces.

"This represents a fundamental point of departure in Hamas' efforts to break out of its international isolation, to deal with the needs of its constituents and do it without giving up much along the lines of its armed struggle," said Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East negotiator with the State Department and the author of "The Much Too Promised Land: America's Elusive Search for Arab-Israeli Peace."

Olmert will head to Cairo on Tuesday to meet Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, as negotiations over Shalit and Gaza are set to move into a new phase if Gaza remains quiet.

Israel's indirect negotiations with Hamas coincide with its indirect talks with Syria.

Earlier this month, Turkish mediators oversaw a second round of indirect talks involving Israeli and Syrian officials.

The goal is to hold direct talks eventually and to secure a peace deal that could include Israel returning the Golan Heights to Syria in exchange for an agreement for Syria to distance itself from Iran and its allies.

"The fact that Syria has positioned itself as part of the 'axis of evil' and has sabotaged a political system in Lebanon and has supported Hamas and has facilitated terror against America in Iraq is something that can either be changed by a violent confrontation or by a political process," Olmert told Der Spiegel in an interview. "And I think that if there is a chance for a political process it should be tried."

With the Hamas deal in place and Syrian talks moving along, Olmert appealed this week for talks with Lebanon, a move that the Bush administration apparently supports.

Talks with Israel could lead to the return to Lebanon of a small slice of Israeli-controlled land known as Shebaa Farms. Hezbollah, which now is in a position to veto any act of government, has made the return of Shebaa Farms one of its main rallying cries. Lebanon's Western-leaning leaders so far have rebuffed Israel's public entreaties, however.

Hezbollah is engaged in separate negotiations with Israel that have generated anticipation that a major prisoner swap is on the horizon.

German mediators have been working on the deal, in which Israel would release Lebanese militant Samir Kuntar, who was captured in 1979 after killing four Israelis, including a 4-year-old girl. Hezbollah is expected to return Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, two Israeli soldiers whom it captured July 12, 2006, while they were patrolling the Lebanese border, in an attack that sparked a costly 34-day war.

By returning Kuntar, Israel could deprive Hezbollah of the other major issue it's used to win support in Lebanon.