Foreign diplomats who meet with the prime minister get the impression that Ehud Olmert understands that reaching an agreement with the Palestinians is a vital Israeli interest. Israeli peace activists leave Olmert's residence with the feeling that if it were not for his dependence on Kadima's large contingent of ex-Likudniks and on hawkish coalition partners like Avigdor Lieberman and Eli Yishai, Olmert would be able to return from Annapolis with a framework for a peace agreement. Even those "carriers of Yitzhak Rabin's legacy" in the Labor Party, including President Shimon Peres, are not going out of their way to assist him.
But how does all this conform with the demand that the PLO recognize Israel as a Jewish state? Why has Olmert knowingly stumbled into this quagmire? Does he believe that Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas should give up this bargaining chip even before the start of negotiations over the core issues? And if Olmert does believe this, is he willing to give Abbas something of equal value in exchange? Or does he expect Abbas to agree to this merely in exchange for Israel's willingness to pick up the talks exactly where they began over seven years ago? This demand is reminiscent of the precondition Israel made to Syria: that it commit to severing its ties with Iran and deport Hamas leader Khaled Meshal from Damascus in return for Israel's willingness to talk - while Israel would continue to encourage Jewish settlements in the Golan Heights.
Professor Yehezkel Dror recently wrote that conditioning talks with Damascus on Syrian actions such as terminating all support for terror organizations would only be justified if there were reason to believe the other side would agree to meet that condition, or if negotiations before that condition were met would encourage hostilities against Israel. "In the absence of evidence supporting these views, it would be better not to set preconditions, but to direct the talks themselves at fulfilling these conditions," Dror wrote. "Another option would be to engage in informal talks."
Dror also said that "the government as a whole, and each of its members individually, hastily decided on an overly harsh military response without receiving data and evaluations to clarify the ramifications and consequences of their decision." He said the government and each of its members "acted without the necessary judgment, caution and responsibility" (page 124 of the Winograd Committee's interim report on the Second Lebanon War).
Discussions with people familiar with the preparations for the Annapolis summit reveal that the decision to get on the high horse of conditioning talks with the Palestinians on their willingness to recognize Israel as a Jewish state was made with the same haste Olmert's cabinet decided on the large-scale military operation in Lebanon. Cabinet members requested no analyses of the likelihood that the Palestinians would accept this demand, or of the likelihood that such a demand would cause the summit to fail. The demand was placed on the table without any discussion of the consequences that the summit's failure could have on the life expectancy of the Palestinian bloc that favors a two-state solution. Khaled Meshal has already said that while the moderate Arab leaders are dining at U.S. President George W. Bush's table, Hamas will remind Muslims of the children of Gaza, who are forced to survive on water and pita.
And what will happen in another month or two, when it becomes clear that Lieberman and Yishai are serious about their threats? Has Olmert taken into account the possibility that should his government walk out of the negotiations, or collapse while conducting them, Israel would suffer two painful blows? Not only would it lose its Palestinian partner - possibly the last one - for a two-state solution, but it would also expose itself as a non-partner for a peace agreement based on the international consensus and the principles of the Arab peace initiative.
Initiating diplomatic negotiations, like going to war, is not child's play. With a nod to Carl von Clausewitz's observation that war is a continuation of diplomacy by other means, one could say that the failure of diplomacy is liable to lead to other forms of war.
Just as he does in war, a leader must plan an exit strategy before launching a peace process. If Olmert does not believe that he has the political strength to implement a fateful move of Ben-Gurionesque proportions, as he himself has termed it, then he must be prepared to promptly go to the people and ask them to decide what kind of country they wish to live in.
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