In Middle East Diplomacy, the Silent Treatment Goes Both Ways

Of the 79 recommendations of the Iraq Study Group report that came out recently, the one that got the most attention -- even before the report's release -- was the recommendation that the U.S. government talk with Iran and Syria. That recommendation has also met with broad approval in the Arab world, not so much out of affection for the two countries but out of a conviction that dialogue will yield better outcomes than an effort at isolation. Indeed, the Gulf governments' response to more strident voices in Tehran over the last 18 months has not been a 1980s-style isolation policy by those governments. Instead, Gulf Arab governments have stressed dialogue and mutual security, much as they did during the Khatami period of the late 1990s. Dialogue, these governments suggest, relieves tensions and builds common interests, despite deep distrust and clashing strategic objectives across the Gulf.

Farther west, governments in the Levant have applauded the call for the United States to engage in dialogue as well, arguing that giving Iran and Syria the cold shoulder does nothing to solve the problems of either Lebanon or Iraq, and instead makes regional problems fester.

For all of their applause for dialogue, however, these governments have given scant thought to their own little effort at isolation, that of Israel. As Israel and Iran are major non-Arab powers in the region, one would think that the parallels would be obvious. Similarly, one would think that the failure of more than a half-century of attempted isolation to accomplish even minimal Arab goals would prompt a rethinking. Yet, when it comes to Israel, Arab governments (and Iran) default to what they criticize as a misguided Bush Administration policy: an insistence on obtaining the most fundamental concessions as a prelude to rather than as a consequence of negotiations.

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