TORONTO: As the Annapolis peace summit looms closer, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is trying hard to make meaningful gestures to the Palestinian Authority without risking the dismemberment of his coalition government. It s a tough circle to square, but Olmert deserves the benefit of the doubt.
During the week s events marking the 12th anniversary of Yitzhak Rabin s assassination, Olmert pointedly lauded his predecessor s courage, undertook to carry out previously unfulfilled Israeli commitments (evacuation of illegal West Bank outposts), and said he would stay the course in future peace talks. And in private conversations, the Prime Minister seems to genuinely want to fulfill his election promise to end the conflict and determine Israel s permanent borders. No less important, he believes that if he is doomed to fall, better to do so over peace negotiations than over a series of investigations (for alleged conflicts of interest) plaguing his tenure.
There are limits to what can be achieved at Annapolis because, for different reasons, neither Israel nor the Palestinian Authority can go the required distance to produce an agreement right now. But ever the shrewd politician, Olmert is looking for creative ways to make Annapolis a success. He plans to do just enough there to keep momentum alive and to use the subsequent 12 months to produce an internationally sanctioned agreement with which he ll seek re-election. Still haunted by public criticism of last year s costly war with Hezbollah, Olmert knows that no less a card will suffice for a renewed mandate.
To get there, Olmert s trade-off is a vaguely worded statement of principles at Annapolis that he can use to assuage critics from the right. Once buoyed by the show of support at the summit, he s prepared to commit himself to a more onerous timetable and set of demands for what will follow. Because of this, the Israeli left is backing him, although skeptics question the viability of any discussion that excludes Hamas.
Both Washington and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas seem prepared to go along with this approach. In Jerusalem and Ramallah this week, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice indicated the US would intervene in drafting the joint statement of principles (something the Palestinians want but Israel had earlier opposed) and would assign a special envoy to the post-Annapolis process.
But for Annapolis to qualify as a non-failure, more than robust American backing to compensate for the parties respective weaknesses is needed. Broad Arab presence and support are essential because the Israeli – Palestinian conflict is inextricably linked to larger regional tensions – the Iranian nuclear threat (a concern for Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia no less than for Israel), Hamas in Gaza, a stronger Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Sunni-Shia divide, and the US debacle in Iraq.
Precisely because of this, naysayers in Israel argue against any concessions to a Palestinian president held hostage by Hamas, whom they see as an Iranian proxy. In fact, the reverse is true: Annapolis can be the first step of a regional realignment based on the Arab League initiative, which promises Israel normalization in return for withdrawal to 1967 borders. That s the real dividend of a deal for Israel and it s why the stakes are so high. Failure in Annapolis is likely to result in a decimated Palestinian Authority, a strengthened Hamas, an isolated, truculent Syria, a more aggressive Hezbollah – and a fatal blow to the notion of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. None of this bodes well for the twin planks of Israel s raison d être as a democracy with a Jewish majority.
Olmert s up against a formidable array of domestic challenges, not least of which are threats from two coalition parties to resign if any substantive core issues are raised in Annapolis. He s also facing opposition from Defense Minister and Labor Leader Ehud Barak, who should be a natural ally. Barak appears reluctant to give Olmert the chance to succeed where he failed at the Camp David peace talks with Yasser Arafat. And in a week filled with images of the Rabin assassination, there s always the fear of violence from zealots on the Israeli right.
There s also little the Israeli leader can do about Abbas inherent weakness or Hamas ability to derail the talks with terrorism. But if Olmert stays his present course and Annapolis nevertheless fails, he won t be the one to blame.
Shira Herzogis a columnist with the Canadian Globe and Mail and divides her time between Toronto and Tel Aviv. This article was distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at www.commongroundnews.org. Source: The Globe and Mail, www.globeandmail.com.