Clear political horizon
After despairing and losing his way in the wake of the Lebanon war, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert yesterday presented a clear political strategy.
After despairing and losing his way in the wake of the Lebanon war, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert yesterday presented a clear political strategy. In the speech he gave at Sde Boker, at the state memorial ceremony for David Ben-Gurion, Olmert returned to the approach he exhibited when he formed his government: Withdrawal from the vast majority of the territories, the evacuation of most of the settlements and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state are essential for the long-term existence of the State of Israel. Or, as he has said in the past, they are the "lifeline of Zionism."
In turning to the Palestinian people, Olmert proposed negotiating over the establishment of a Palestinian state with territorial contiguity in the West Bank, whose borders will be determined in accordance with the April 2004 "Bush letter" to Ariel Sharon. The presidential letter was composed in ambiguous language, but according to the Israeli interpretation, it recognizes the addition of the large settlement blocs to Israel and depicts the border approximately according to the route of the separation fence.
Olmert promised to "agree to the evacuation of many territories and communities that were established therein," release prisoners who were sentenced to long jail terms and take a series of confidence-building steps like opening crossing points, removing roadblocks and freeing up funds. He spoke about the role of Arab states in negotiations and praised "positive" parts of the Saudi peace initiative.
Olmert presented the Palestinians with a list of conditions for beginning negotiations: the establishment of a new Palestinian Authority government committed to the Quartet principles, primarily recognition of Israel; the implementation of the road map, which calls for the dismantling of the terrorist organizations; and the release of abducted soldier Gilad Shalit. Only if these conditions are fulfilled will Olmert "invite Abu Mazen [PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas] to meet with me immediately, in order to conduct a real, open, genuine and serious dialogue."
The Sde Boker speech puts the resolution of the conflict with the Palestinians back at the top of Israel's national agenda. Olmert deserves praise for his decision to embark on a political initiative, following the cease-fire declared in the Gaza Strip over the weekend. The direction that has been charted is an expression of the desires of a salient and consistent majority of both nations, as many polls and studies have shown.
Olmert showed yesterday that Avigdor Lieberman's entry into his government has not brought the renewal of the political process to an end. His readiness to act will also reduce the pressure on Israel to accept a political initiative forced on it from the outside.
This is the time to call on the Palestinians and their supporters in the Arab world to take up the prime minister's challenge and come to the negotiation table. It's true that Olmert's proposals are still far from the Palestinian demands. It's also true that Olmert was intentionally vague about the Jerusalem issue and other final-status questions. But that is the nature of diplomatic negotiation, which begins from positions that are far apart and tries to bring them closer. The alternative that the prime minister described - renewed violence and many victims - will only damage both sides and keep them away, once again, from a chance at normal life. It would be a shame to miss the renewed opportunity for an agreement that was created with the cease-fire and the Sde Boker speech.