Is Olmert trying to save his government or Israel

Two summers ago, Israel was dropping bombs on Hezbollah strongholds in Beirut and fighting a low-level war in the Gaza Strip with Hamas. Just this past September, Israeli fighter jets bombed a purported nuclear site in the Syrian desert.

But these days, with Hamas’ hold on Gaza as strong as ever, Hezbollah rearmed and refortified in Lebanon and Syria signing new defense pacts with Iran, Israel is eschewing military force for diplomacy.

In the past few weeks, Israel entered into a cease-fire with Hamas (it appears to be on the verge of collapsing after Islamic Jihad militants fired rockets from Gaza at Sderot on June 24), launched Turkish-mediated peace talks with Syria, told Lebanon it is willing to discuss trading the disputed Shebaa Farms in exchange for peace and engaged in indirect talks with Hezbollah about swapping prisoners.

Why the sudden change of heart?

“It’s the Middle East — why are you surprised?” quipped veteran Israeli political commentator and columnist Nahum Barnea. “The only unusual thing is the scope: Suddenly at once there are negotiations on several fronts. Taking each one individually, I don’t see anything new.”

Examined separately, each development makes sense on its own merits, and some are the culmination of months-long efforts rather than signs of change in Israeli policy.

But taken together, three key factors are driving what may be emerging as a new Israeli diplomatic approach toward its Arab neighbors: Iran’s growing sphere of influence, the limits of Israeli military power and, some say, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s political troubles.

Perhaps the most compelling reason for the latest major development on the Israeli-Arab front, the tottering Hamas-Israel cease-fire, was that Israeli airstrikes, shelling and pinpoint counterterrorist operations in the strip had failed to neutralize the Hamas threat from Gaza and bring quiet to the residents of southern Israel.

In Israel’s talks with Syria, the Jewish state is most interested in removing Damascus from Iran’s orbit and choking off Iranian support for Hezbollah, Israel’s enemy in Lebanon.

The thinking behind this is twofold: If talks are successful, Iranian power and influence would suffer and Iran would be in a worse position to use its proxies in Syria, Lebanon and elsewhere to respond to a potential Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities.

Second, merely engaging Syria in negotiations and holding out the promise of embrace by the West motivates Syrian moderation and slows Syria’s slide toward the fundamentalist regime in Tehran.

“It’s very important that there are negotiations,” said Shlomo Avineri, a professor of political science at Hebrew University. “When there are negotiations, you don’t shoot. The question is what happens when you get to the finish line of negotiations.”

But Israeli officials take pains to point out that there is a key difference between the peace tracks with Syria and the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority and indirect communication with the likes of Hamas and Hezbollah, both designated terrorist groups.

“There are no direct talks with Hamas,” said David Hacham, Arab affairs adviser in the Israeli Defense Ministry.

Moreover, he said, the fact that all these developments are happening simultaneously are mere coincidence. The government always has been interested in doing whatever is necessary to advance peaceful relations with its neighbors. And, he said, this is not the first time Israel has conducted peace talks with Syria, reached a cease-fire with Hamas or had indirect contacts with Hezbollah over a prisoner swap.

But Michael Oren, a senior fellow at the Shalem Center, says Olmert is turning Israel toward negotiations in an attempt to save his government.

“He’s generating a raison d’etre for the government,” Oren said.

The prime minister rejects such insinuations.

“The prime minister and the government he heads are fully committed to seeking and achieving peace with all of Israel’s adversaries,” the Prime Minister’s Office said in a statement to JTA. “This has always been Israel’s position and it will spare no effort to achieve these goals.”