WASHINGTON - On the pavement at the entrance to the White House, workers are setting up the stage for the inauguration of Barack Obama. To an Israeli accustomed to improvisations this looks strange. The event will only take place seven weeks from now, and they are already preparing the stage instead of waiting for the last minute. But this is the United States of America, and here they work by the book and plan ahead.
Inside the White House, President George W. Bush organized a sad farewell party for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. The convoy of limousines crossed the street from the presidential guesthouse to the White House, and an officer in a white uniform greeted the prime minister at the gate, following the protocol. Inside, in the Oval Office, the two exchanged compliments and thanks for their great missed opportunities. Thank you for your support for the two-state vision, said Bush to Olmert. Thank you for the war in Iraq, which eliminated a great threat to us, Olmert replied. Only the meager media presence was a reminder that the leaders are about to vacate their chairs, and their authority is fading away.
For old-timers, this event brought back memories from eight years ago. Then as now, an Israeli prime minister at the end of his road tried to achieve a historic peace agreement with the Palestinians, with the help of an American president about to be replaced. Then, as now, the Israelis and Americas wanted to sew things up and the Palestinian leader refused to sign, saying the deal was a bad one. Then, as now, Israel was facing a political reversal and the rise of the right to power. Then, as now, the prime minister displayed determination and doggedness, while the public was just waiting for him to go away.
My offer to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) goes further than anything offered to the Palestinians in the past, and your role is to get him to sign, said Olmert to Bush. In a little while I'm not going to be here, you're not going to be here and Abu Mazen is telling me he intends to leave. The two-state solution, the only way to end the conflict, is in danger. Let's make one last effort.
This is exactly what former prime minister Ehud Barak said to former president Bill Clinton eight years ago. The only difference is that according to Olmert, his offer to the Palestinians was more generous than Barak's. Bush wants to end his term in office with an Israeli-Palestinian agreement and show all his critics that they have been wrong; that his approach has indeed brought peace. But the chance of this happening looks small to him.
Abu Mazen is saying to the Americans that it is hard for him to accept Olmert's proposal. He fears that the next Israeli government will renounce the agreement and refuse to honor it, even if Kadima and not Likud wins the election in February. Olmert is proposing that Israel absorb a symbolic number of refugees, and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni is opposed even to this. Olmert's proposal concerning Jerusalem - division of neighborhoods by ethnicity and an international mechanism to find an arrangement for the holy places - looks vague and impractical to the Palestinians.
Abu Mazen will be invited for a farewell visit of his own to the White House, just as Yasser Arafat was during Clinton's last days. And again it is being said that the way to overcome Palestinian stubbornness goes through the Arab countries. If Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia back him, Abu Mazen will change his mind and sign on to Olmert's proposal.
This is what was hoped eight years ago as well. But the Arab countries care above all about their own interests and not about the Palestinians'; the chance that they will now shake Olmert's hand is zero. Thus another term in office of an American president and Israeli prime minister will culminate in a stack of memoirs about the peace that was within reach and was missed.
Obama should learn two lessons from this way of doing things. The first is that plans aren't enough: The public proposal for an Israeli-Palestinian peace published by his close associates is absolutely identical to Bush's positions and the positions of previous presidents. The question is how to turn it into a reality, and no one has found an answer. The second lesson is that leaders' terms of office are short and they must not wait.
Leaders at the end of their road are more daring, but they can do less. There is no knowing what will distract attention and topple the diplomatic process - a war in Lebanon, the rise of Hamas, an economic crisis or an investigation that doesn't end. So it is important to act quickly and not wait for the last minute.
But Obama is above all a politician and pragmatist trying to succeed where it is possible to succeed, and not only to advance elevated ideas. His supporters from the ideological American left, who accompanied him during the campaign, have been kept out of senior positions in his administration.
The expectation that in the three weeks between his inauguration and the Israeli elections Obama will present a peace plan that will convince the Israelis to vote for "Tzipi and not Bibi" seems unrealistic and contrary to the way he has conducted himself until now.
Obama wants peace, but he also reads public opinion polls. If the trend of the strengthening of the right and the rise of Benjamin Netanyahu continues in Israel, he will not risk public support for a loser. After the elections the administration will have to work with the winner; his challenge will be to persuade Netanyahu to act pragmatically and not get into a pointless ideological wrangle with him. And this challenge pales beside the challenge of finding a Palestinian leader reliable and strong enough to sign an agreement and implement it.
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