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Israel eyes regional peace push, prepares for U.S. talks with Iran

by Leslie Susser

October 23, 2008 | 1:08 am

With the governments in Washington and Jerusalem set to change, Israeli leaders are reassessing policy in two key areas: Middle East peacemaking and Iran.

On peacemaking, both President Shimon Peres and Defense Minister Ehud Barak are coming out strongly in favor of a new regional approach and Prime Minister-designate Tzipi Livni is listening.

On Iran, the Foreign Ministry -- the government department Livni heads -- is preparing for the possibility of U.S. dialogue with Tehran, especially if Barack Obama becomes president. If that is the turn U.S. policy takes, Israel will try to convince the new U.S. president to insist on one condition: That Iran suspend uranium enrichment before talks begin.

For some time now, Peres has been arguing that it was a mistake for Israel to conduct separate negotiations for separate deals with the Syrians and the Palestinians. Instead, he says, Israel should be negotiating with all the Arab states and the Arab League for a comprehensive regional peace.

In separate negotiations, Israel often makes major concessions in return for relatively little, Peres says. For example, Israel's opening of peace talks with Syria already has resulted in the rehabilitation of the Syrian regime in the international arena, but Israel has received nothing in return.

But a regional approach could enable greater flexibility in solving problems and deliver a real end to the Arab-Israeli conflict, Peres says.

Behind the scenes, in meetings with Arab and Western leaders, Peres quietly has been promoting the regional approach. Peres went public with this strategy only in his mid-September address to the U.N. General Assembly in New York, when he appealed directly to Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah by declaring that Israel was ready to discuss the 2002 Arab plan for regional peace.

In a meeting this week with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Sharm el-Sheik, Peres is expected to outline his ideas in more detail.

Although Peres serves in a ceremonial position -- Israel's presidency comes with virtually no executive powers -- the Israeli president's actions carry weight. This is partly because of Peres' reputation and experience but more because his moves on the regional front have been coordinated closely with Livni.

Barak also has picked up this approach. He says Israel needs to come up with a regional peace initiative of its own and present it to the Arab world. The Arab and Israeli initiatives together then could create a basis for a serious regional peace dialogue.

He points out that Israeli and Arab moderates share concerns about containing Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas. And he agrees with Peres on the need for a more comprehensive regional approach, particularly since the separate talks with Syria and the Palestinians have made little headway.

The advantages of the regional approach are manifold: Israel could make trade-offs on and between key issues. It could bring countries such as Lebanon, Syria and Jordan into a solution of the Palestinian refugee issue. Israel would have the added assurance of knowing that any agreement would be underpinned by the entire Arab world. In addition, the Jewish state could negotiate a credible end to the Arab-Israeli conflict precisely because the entire Arab world would be signed on to it.

But how would regional peacemaking actually work? Would the framework be too large and cumbersome? Would the more radical voices on the Arab side set the tone?

On the face of it, it would seem more logical for regional peace to follow agreements with Syria and the Palestinians, not produce them. The way Israeli officials see it, regional talks could be held in parallel with negotiations with Syria and the Palestinians, not instead of them.

Whether or not the regional effort leaves the ground, the Foreign Ministry is considering other bilateral peace initiatives, including a long-term nonbelligerency pact with Lebanon.

The aim would be to demarcate the Israel-Lebanon border, solve the dispute over the Shebaa Farms area, set in motion a mechanism for military coordination and restrict Hezbollah weaponry and deployment. Fruitful parallel talks with Syria could make something along these lines feasible.

In addition, Israeli strategists assume that whoever wins the U.S. election in November will seek to talk to Tehran, though Obama might do so without preconditions.

For months, the Foreign Ministry, Mossad, the National Security Council and the Israel Atomic Energy Commission have been discussing a range of possible Israeli responses.

The emergent consensus is that Israel will press the next U.S. president not to engage in open talks with Tehran until Iran suspends its uranium enrichment program. This is in line with a current proposal by the United States, Russia, Great Britain, France and China, all permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, and Germany that Iran stops the enriching process, receives a package of incentives for doing so and only then may talks start.

In any event, Livni seems quite willing to give dialogue a chance, as long as it is not used by the Iranians as a smoke screen to push ahead with their nuclear program.

Yitzhak Ben Yisrael, probably the Knesset member closest to Livni, said bluntly that if the world does not prevent Iran from going nuclear, Israel will have no choice but to take military action.

But, he said, Israel would much prefer Iran be stopped by peaceful means, and he believes there is still time. By his count, Iran is about three years away from producing a nuclear weapon -- two years from fully mastering its uranium enrichment technology and then another year from producing enough fissionable material to manufacture a bomb.

This seems to contradict a late September report to the Cabinet by Brig. Gen. Yossi Baidatz, head of research in military intelligence, that said that Iran was mastering enrichment technology, already had produced one-third of the fissionable material needed for a bomb and that the Western world was blind to the urgency of the situation.

Despite Baidatz's alarm bells, Livni now seems ready to give fresh, focused diplomacy a chance. Talking to Iran while it continues to enrich uranium would, in her view, be a disaster. But getting Iran to suspend enrichment activities while talks are carried out could be the best way forward.

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