This month Bashar Assad completed eight years in power. Hosni Mubarak has already passed the 27-year mark, and even Mahmoud Abbas has more time in office than Ehud Olmert. All three have seen plenty of Israeli partners to appreciate that in terms of politics Israel is a lot more similar to Lebanon than to a Western country. They are already used to the fact that with an Israeli prime minister it is only possible to travel a limited distance, perhaps a station or two, and then comes the long wait for the next elected Israeli leader.
When Assad and Abbas busy themselves this week with the possible scenarios in Israeli politics, they will discover that many years might pass before they find a new and serious Israeli partner. With Shaul Mofaz there is a good chance for war, and with Tzipi Livni there is a good chance for nothing. Labor, that stale hope that represented in Arab eyes the rational-liberal stream, is hooked up to life-support equipment. Benjamin Netanyahu, meanwhile, will surely focus his attention on making peace with the United States.
When Abbas and Assad look westward they will discover an amazing natural phenomenon - Siamese twins are running for the presidency of the United States. Barack Obama and John McCain are different names for the same agenda as far as their attitude toward Israel is concerned; whichever Israel that might be.
The Arab partners are naturally wondering whether they need to wait and see if there is any activity on the Israeli track, and whether the diplomatic process will continue, as if Israel has a prime minister in office. Do the things they have already agreed on with Olmert have any validity? After all, Assad and Abbas hold documents and agreements that were drawn up during Olmert's tenure - maps and proposals for security arrangements on the Golan Heights, formula drafts on the right of return and the borders of a future Palestinian state. Each of them keeps a diary with dates marked for talks, and at least until November, in the worst-case scenario, or March (the best-case scenario from their point of view), there will be someone with whom to formulate a framework for future agreements.
In theory, the continuation of talks may be interpreted as a trick. Is it really possible for Assad, Abbas and Olmert to reach an agreement in the coming months - one that will bind Mofaz or Livni, not to mention Netanyahu? Would this not merely be a pathetic attempt by Olmert to leave behind a souvenir that will accumulate dust?
The answer to this can be found in the concept that has come to be known as "Rabin's deposit." This non-paper placed in the safekeeping of secretary of state Warren Christopher 14 years ago by prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was revived during the Israel-Syria talks. Israel also agreed to continue the negotiations from where they left off during Ehud Barak's administration.
The talks with Abbas also did not begin from zero - they were based, in part, on agreements and decisions that were reached in the past and also rely to some extent on the 2002 Arab initiative. It turns out that the documents and agreements have a longer shelf life than their authors and are revived like desert flowers after many years of drought.
Assad and Abbas may not have a partner for reaching a peace agreement, but they do have, and so does Israel, someone to formulate a deposit with. There is no reason that the broad willingness to withdraw from the Golan Heights for peace, or the slogan "two states for two peoples" will not be broken down into details by each side. What will the nature of the normalization with Syria be? How large will the demilitarized area between Tiberias and Damascus be? Where will be the 2 percent of territory that Israel, at least for now, is willing to give the Palestinians in return for annexing the settlement blocs come from? How many refugees will be allowed into Israel after an agreement? There are thousands of such details that one day will comprise a final accord.
Olmert is another prime minister fading away as a Syrian and Palestinian partner, but he can and should leave a legacy for the public and political dialogue - a legacy that will force Livni, Mofaz, Barak or Netanyahu to accept, reject or adopt in part. In short, a legacy that will force Israel to provide a new partner quickly.
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