Upon seeing the photograph of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert embracing Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, it is no longer possible to say that Olmert wants to grab hold of a political agreement with the Palestinians in the hope that he will be able to extricate himself from a criminal indictment. When the prime minister sends his assistants to Turkey so they will continue to work toward a peace deal with Syria, it's difficult to attack him with the accusation that a withdrawal will be as extensive as the investigation. One can believe that Olmert insists on persisting with the political process because he realizes the importance of its success and the price we will pay for its failure.
It will take weeks until the new Kadima leader forms a government. If the party's new head does not manage to do so, it will be months until the 18th Knesset swears in the 32nd government. The reality in the occupied territories and Lebanon is not proceeding in accordance with Israel's frenetic political timetable (take the strengthening of Hamas and the arming of Hezbollah). Olmert is what we've got, and we have to make the best of him in an effort to contain the radicals on both sides who reject peace.
Since he announced his intention to quit, Olmert has become a kind of acting prime minister; he has full formal-legal authority to conduct negotiations but lacks the public-ethical legitimacy to set borders and offer national assets.
At first glance, the Labor Party appears to be the natural candidate to fill this gap. The documents stored in the files of negotiations that party chairman Ehud Barak conducted with the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat greatly resemble the understandings between Olmert and Abbas. The officials involved in the negotiations with Syria expect that a peace deal with Damascus will closely resemble the document former U.S. president Bill Clinton submitted to Barak and then-Syrian foreign minister Farouk Shara during the January 2000 Shepherdstown talks. However, Barak - along with Minister Ami Ayalon, who compiled the People's Voice accords with Sari Nusseibeh, and a former Peace Now activist, Education Minister Yuli Tamir - are about as involved in the peace process as the Pensioners Party.
This is the same Labor Party that brought the world dialogue with the Palestinians and helped create the Palestinian Authority but then lent a hand to Ariel Sharon's withdrawal without negotiations and contributed to the erosion of the PA's power. Since Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni made a U-turn and adopted the policy of negotiating with the Palestinians and strengthening the PA, the Labor Party has been watching from the sidelines. It did not demand that one of its senior ministers actively participate in the talks with the Palestinians, and did not present its position on the core issues. Labor is not only showing no interest in negotiations, or for that matter contributing to them, but has sabotaged efforts to rehabilitate the Palestinians' belief in the diplomatic option.
Led by the Labor chairman, the Defense Ministry and Israel Defense Forces units in the West Bank are allowing settlers to expand their living quarters at the expense of the Palestinians' freedom of movement. There is almost no settlement on the western or eastern side of the West Bank separation fence that is not enjoying a push in construction. "Unfortunately, certain mobile homes have been added to some of the unauthorized outposts," Vice Premier Haim Ramon said at a State Control Committee meeting in late February, adding that the Civil Administration does not enforce the law everywhere.
One could have expected the Labor Party to insist that the government honor the promise "to act to uphold the commitments and the decisions of the outgoing government on the matter of outposts." Ramon, a Kadima member, said at the control committee meeting that, "We would have been very glad to reach an understanding and resolve this problem without violent conflict, meaning a forcible evacuation, but if there is no choice, I think that ultimately the government needs to uphold both its legal and political obligation."
When Barak, who bills himself as Yitzhak Rabin's successor, endlessly defers the time when such commitments must be honored, it's hard to complain about Ramon, who promised the Knesset six months ago that the ministerial committee he heads - a panel charged with implementing the Sasson report recommendations aimed at curbing the unruly construction in the settlements - would bring a decision to the government "within the next month or two" about construction in the West Bank.
It is difficult to understand why the peace process has become alien to the Labor Party. It will pay for this treachery at the polls.
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