In the political biography of Israel's prime ministers, there is a point of no return, when the doubts, hesitations and waffling come to an end, and the leader commits to a bold diplomatic move that defines him until the end of his tenure. It happened to Yitzhak Rabin at Oslo, to Benjamin Netanyahu at the Wye Plantation, to Ariel Sharon with the disengagement, and now it's Ehud Olmert's turn at Annapolis. After almost two years in the premiership, during which he barely survived the crisis of the Second Lebanon War, Olmert asked the public this week for its support of another attempt to end Israel's control of the territories and obtain a settlement with the Palestinians.
Like his predecessors, Olmert also came to the conclusion that the status quo can no longer be maintained and that the existing situation is a much greater threat to Israel's future than the risk of an unsuccessful peace summit. This is the feeling he'll be bringing with him to the international "encounter" in Annapolis next Tuesday. A continuation of the stalemate, warns Olmert, will bolster Hamas in the West Bank, and weaken, and possibly even eliminate, the moderate Palestinian camp. Such developments would have lethal consequences for Israel, in the prime minister's view. Therefore, he must present the Palestinians with a "political horizon," and conduct negotiations with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas on a final status agreement. Otherwise, a couple of years from now, he'll have to explain to himself just how Hamas took over both the Gaza Strip and the West Bank on his watch.
Olmert prides himself on two traits: calm under pressure, and consistency in his political positions. As he sees it, there was nothing new in his declaration this week at the cabinet meeting that "the territorial reality that exists today will no longer exist in the future. We cannot delude ourselves." He understood the dangers of the status quo as early as four years ago and is just as committed today to the positions he expressed at the time in an interview with Nahum Barnea in Yedioth Ahronoth, under the headline, "Olmert is Leaving the Territories."
His assessment of the situation hasn't changed, even if he has adapted himself to the circumstances. In the intelligence assessments presented to the cabinet the other day, Olmert was impressed above all by the warnings about the anticipated risks to Israel if it evades a diplomatic process. He believed they were more serious than the possible threats entailed in the process itself.
The prime minister warns that insistence on forging an accord under ideal conditions for Israel will lead to the shelving of the two-state vision and to a Palestinian struggle for "one state for two peoples" and equal voting rights. With the Arab majority that would exist then between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, Israel would not be able to remain a Jewish state. His demand that the Palestinians formally recognize Israel's Jewish character was not intended to actually achieve such recognition now, but to make it plain what's really at stake.
This week, Olmert managed to circumvent Avigdor Lieberman's demand that recognition of Israel as a Jewish state be made a precondition for negotiations with the Palestinians. He promises to bring the matter up at a later point, and not to waver on it. The Palestinians will have to recognize this reality, and the diplomatic process cannot be comprised solely of Israeli concessions. If the Palestinians won't compromise, there won't be an agreement.
In his talks with Abbas, Olmert was convinced that the gaps between the parties were sufficiently bridgeable for an agreement to be within reach. The process will be difficult and laden with crises, but he's not naive. He has experience in all the ins and outs of conducting negotiations. Nothing he has seen so far has surprised him, either in the dialogue with Abbas or on the domestic Israeli scene. And he is trying to keep calm on the way to the biggest event of his political life.
This week, he was quoted as saying he wasn't nervous about the trip to Annapolis; rather, he was very focused and working on the speech he will deliver there. This is how he'd like to be remembered - as unsentimental and supremely self-controlled, dealing with important issues of state and untroubled by police investigations against him. Just look - didn't he say from the start that this "international encounter" would only serve to launch the process, and that the Arab states would come? Things have turned out just as he predicted.
Abbas persuaded Olmert that the idea of an interim accord with a provisional Palestinian state was impractical, and that it should be taken off the agenda so talks could proceed directly on the matter of a final status accord. In return, the Palestinians agreed to the Israeli demand that the agreement be separated from its implementation. Olmert figures that in U.S. President George W. Bush's last year in office, it might still be possible to reach an agreement, but not necessarily to implement it. Implementation depends on the development of internal processes in Palestinian society, the bolstering of institutions and governmental and security capabilities - and this will take more than a year. In diplomatic-speak, this is what they call "conditioning implementation according to the road map."
Olmert has noticed that the Israeli right has fallen in love with the road map, especially with its requirement that the Palestinians fight terror. He wonders, though, whether the plan's newfound adherents have bothered to read it carefully since, the real essence of the road map, as he sees it, and the basic premise held by Israel's greatest friends in the world, is that the occupation must be brought to an end. Not to mention that Israel is also bound by obligations, the foremost of which is to evacuate the outposts (which Olmert has continued to promise) and freeze construction of settlements. His declaration this week to the cabinet, that no new settlements will be built, that no more lands will be appropriated and that the area of existing settlements will not be increased, seems adequate to him at this stage.
Olmert's point of no return could also be seen on the cover of Tuesday's Yedioth Ahronoth in an article Amos Oz penned, expressing enthusiastic support for him. The support of the writer and mentor of the Zionist left is heartwarming to the prime minister, who considers Oz's position an important moral anchor for his moves. But it also clearly situates Olmert on the political map.
Agendas and ambitions
There is greater understanding among the three people who will represent Israel at Annapolis than might appear at first glance. Olmert, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak have similar ideas about the future accord with the Palestinians, and about Israel's interests in the diplomatic process. There's also an interesting similarity in their personal backgrounds. All three are "political penitents." Olmert and Livni were raised on the mantra of "both banks of the Jordan" and are now spearheading an attempt to divide the land. Seven years ago, Barak accepted Clinton's far-reaching partition plan, and since then has moved rightward. Now the three are meeting in the political center. And for the moment, at least, they face no serious opposition to their diplomatic moves.
But this confluence of views was obscured by what appeared to be power struggles at the top - at first between Olmert and Livni, who now claim to be in total cooperation, and in recent weeks between the prime minister and the defense minister. Barak appeared to be a completely security-focused sourpuss eager for payback to the Palestinians for rejecting his offers and sending him toppling from power, taking a derisive attitude toward the Annapolis summit and piling up obstacles to block any gestures to Abbas. Olmert appeared to be having trouble exerting his authority over his government's "Mr. Security." The invitation to Barak to join Olmert and Livni at the peace summit was designed to take the edge off the personal dispute and to bring Barak into the tent. Foreign Minister Livni got the same treatment when she was named head of the negotiating team.
With the flight to Annapolis looming, Barak and Olmert sought to blur their differences. Barak spoke about coordination and cooperation, about the high likelihood of success at Annapolis, and about the government's duty to explore the feasibility of the diplomatic process. He justified his positions by stressing the depth of his commitment to security. Olmert expressed respect for the defense minister's character and experience, but also emphasized the hierarchy between them. In Olmert's view, he needn't judge Barak on the interim moves, but rather on the final outcome - whether, at the moment of truth, Barak is with him or against him.
Olmert believes that the defense minister is with him. He doesn't have to analyze Barak's every word or statement. Barak is cautious, much more thoughtful than in the past and in a different position now. There is a prime minister above him who has to make the decisions and bear the responsibility, and Barak accepts this. Each member of the top triumvirate has his or her own ambitions and agenda for the future, and leadership success is measured by one's ability to deal with the main issues. On this count, Olmert gives himself and his partners good marks.
He is also pleased with the political partnership with Avigdor Lieberman and Eli Yishai, and ready to acknowledge the extensive influence of the strategic affairs minister. Why should they resign before the negotiations even get anywhere, thinks Olmert, and thus repeat the past mistakes of the right, when it rushed to abandon the coalition and lost its power. From the outside, they'll have less influence. Olmert's approach can be summarized as follows: Internally, you have to know how to maneuver. When you don't, the moves may be right but the whole business falls apart. Olmert is hoping that he'll be able to keep things from falling apart. And anyone who wishes to see in this approach a hint of scorn for Barak, whose diplomatic audacity at Camp David left him all alone without a coalition, is welcome to do so - at his own risk, of course.
The turning point
Livni was busy this week polishing the details of the joint declaration, in meetings with her Palestinian counterpart Ahmed Qureia (Abu Ala) and in countless conversations with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who rather than make another trip to the region, has remained intensively involved from Washington. Bush did his bit for the effort in a long phone call to Olmert. By the middle of this week, Rice concluded that the differences had been narrowed down enough to issue formal invitations to Annapolis. This occurred after the American media castigated the administration for stalling and speculated whether the conference would be held at all; the spin in the Israeli media was that no joint declaration would be made. The turning point came with the Palestinians' agreement that discussion of the key issues would be postponed until after the summit and that implementation of the agreement, should one be attained, would be in accordance with the road map. This convinced Rice that there was no need to wait until the Arab League convened its conference today.
Livni is satisfied. After all the efforts and setbacks, the process is about to get underway. But this is only the very beginning. The primary, truly enormous task will come after the summit and all the ceremonies, when they start to talk about the real heart of the matter. Olmert is aware of this, too: He need only glance at the pictures of his predecessors to be reminded that not all of them managed to stay in power after crossing the diplomatic point of no return.
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