Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has a problem. He is finding it difficult to persuade the Israeli public and international community that his government seriously intends to reach a settlement with the Palestinians and is willing to pay the price of withdrawing from territory and evacuating the settlements.
Olmert has another problem. After more than a year and a half at his post, he has very little to show for it. The economy is in excellent shape, but this success is attributed to former finance minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Olmert himself is remembered for the unsuccessful and unpopular war in Lebanon, the Winograd report, the Shahak report and the state comptroller's report, and the belief that he is passing his time in government and working on his personal and political survival (not too badly). This is not a "legacy" to take pride in.
It is dawning on the people around the prime minister that there is no substitute for an Israeli diplomatic initiative that will extricate Olmert from his public opinion troubles and make a mark in the history of the state. If there is to be a public debate, better it take place on a peace agreement and withdrawal from territory than the Cremieux Street house, Bank Leumi and the Investment Center. It it preferable to fall on one's sword as someone who is struggling for the future of the country, and not be humiliated as someone constantly entangled in trivial matters.
Olmert did not invent this idea. Before him was Ariel Sharon, who decided to withdraw from Gaza while under political duress, growing international isolation and criminal investigations. From the moment Sharon chose disengagement, the investigations against him were shelved and the media and public stood behind him.
Olmert's situation is more comfortable than that of his predecessor, who established the settlements and insisted almost to the last minute that Netzarim was as important as Tel Aviv. Olmert came to power with the pledge to withdraw from most of the West Bank and remove most of the settlements. No one can accuse him of a drastic transformation and betraying his supporters the way Sharon was accused. Before the elections and when the government was sworn in, Olmert made it clear that convergence is the Zionist lifeline. There is nothing that Olmert likes more than to point out his determination and consistency.
External events today also tend toward diplomacy. After a year and a half of a diplomatic standstill with the government of Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, there is once again someone to talk to in the PA. Like Olmert, Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayad understand that they will sink if they do not row faster. U.S. President George W. Bush, Quartet envoy Tony Blair, Egypt and Jordan are willing to extend a hand from the outside, each for their own reasons.
Olmert's proposal of an Agreement of Principles regarding a Palestinian state solves a number of his problems. First, he is taking the initiative, leading the public and political agenda and striving to change reality. Second, the initiative underscores the message that Israel wants an agreement and is not seeking excuses to stay in the territories. Third, it responds to the international demand to provide a "diplomatic horizon" for Palestinian moderates.
Fourth, Olmert wants to give up territory, even unilaterally. If he signs Abbas onto the deal, he will achieve something for the merchandise he was ready to give away for free. Fifth, the deal he is proposing focuses on changing reality in the West Bank and Gaza, and sets aside the refugee problem, whose solution is not an essential condition for the establishment of a Palestinian state.
Sixth, the formulation of the details and the implementation of the agreement, which involve significant difficulties for both sides, will wait for the approval of the Agreement of Principles in Palestinian elections and a Knesset vote. This means that much time will pass between the signing ceremony and the evacuation of the settlers - time that can be used to garner public support and isolate the move's opponents.
Seventh, the prime minister's expected political and personal advantage should not be ignored. Instead of his attempt to be convincing that the Second Lebanon War was successful, which falls on deaf ears, he should respond to the will of the great majority of the public, which supports dividing the land and a Palestinian state. If he radiates credibility, he may even improve in the polls, and his declared intention to run for another term against party leaders Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak will seem serious and possible.
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