Back-channel talks are the way forward

Politicians and governments often pontificate that they will “never” negotiate with rogue states or terrorist groups. In fact, such negotiations are taking place right now. Back-channel talks involving Israel and Syria, Egypt and Hamas, and even Israel and Hezbollah are currently under way.

Israel and Syria recently resumed official contact under Turkish auspices, with the hope of achieving a settlement between the two nations. If Syria does not meet the definition of a “rogue state,” the term has no meaning. The United Nations is investigating whether Syria was complicit in the assassination of the pro-Western former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Harriri or interfered in Lebanese political affairs. U.S. officials recently confirmed that an air strike last September destroyed an atomic weapons plant in Syria that was believed to have been built and staffed by North Korea, another rogue state.

Despite legitimate concerns, peace talks between Israel and Syria would play a constructive role if they result in a formal treaty between Israel and the one “front-line” Arab state which is not formally at peace with Israel. As we noted last week, such negotiations are complex and could collapse, but are worth pursuing in the hope of achieving stability in the war-torn neighborhood of the Middle East.

The JTA and other media have reported back-channel talks between Israel and Hezbollah, the Shia Islamist group that fought a 34-day war against Israel in Lebanon two summers ago. German mediators between Israel and Hezbollah have made some progress in achieving an exchange of prisoners with Israel, which could lead to the release of Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, two Israeli soldiers whose kidnappings triggered the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel.

Last week, Israel repatriated a Lebanese Jewish immigrant who had been imprisoned for espionage on behalf of Hezbollah in Israel. Nissim Nasser, a Lebanese Jew who became an Israeli citizen and was jailed in 2002 as a Hezbollah spy, left an Israeli prison last Sunday. He was driven to the Lebanese border and crossed to a hero’s welcome by the Shiite militia.

Hezbollah then turned over a box containing what were described as the remains of Israeli soldiers killed in the Second Lebanese War, whose release has been sought for years by their families. The remains have been confirmed by DNA tests be those of the soldiers. The JTA also reports that Hassan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader in Lebanon, gave a speech claiming that the jihadist group has body parts from at least two Israeli soldiers. Israeli officials condemned the grisly speech, but declined official comment on the apparent exchange.

In other talks, Egyptian officials continue to negotiate with Hamas over a variety of issues, including border crossings between the Gaza Strip and Egypt as well as Israel and prisoner exchange efforts. Hamas is the de facto government of the Gaza Strip, and had been originally democratically elected in the Palestinian elections two years ago. The terrorist group drove the Fatah followers of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas from power by force, a move that has not been recognized by the United States or the European Union.

While the region would improve without Hezbollah or Hamas, both groups exist in substantial numbers and have considerable power in Lebanon and actual control of the Gaza Strip. While direct negotiations between Israel and such groups are not politically feasible, the indirect talks have value if they result in the return of kidnapped Israeli soldiers to their families and the return of the remains of fallen IDF soldiers. Israel, while officially condemning both groups, understandably must welcome a back channel which can reduce violence and achieve meaningful goals in its national interest.

Those who support a peaceful resolution for the entire Middle East should support Israel’s willingness to explore both official and unofficial talks with its adversaries.

While it is important for nations to talk to their friends, they can only resolve their disputes by talks with their enemies. We believe such talks are positive and worthy of our support.