An attempt to lure Haim Ramon into giving an interview last week, moments before Annapolis, was met with vehement resistance. Annapolis isn't his "baby." This is not the child he wanted, to put it mildly. After the last two months, almost nothing remains of the detailed, daring political vision he had hoped would remake the face of the region, and while at it, the status of the prime minister as well.
The "Ramon initiative" went through the coalition's grinder. It was bludgeoned, wrung out, crushed and diluted by Avigdor Lieberman and Eli Yishai from the right, and Ehud Barak and Tzipi Livni - also from the right. When Olmert takes off for Washington, Ramon will be staying home. In body, and in battered spirit as well. He will have to settle for a consolation prize: being acting prime minister for five days.
At a cabinet meeting late last week, Defense Minister Ehud Barak accused him of raising unrealistic expectations on the Palestinian side. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni had leveled much the same charge at him two days before. Barak and Livni speak in practically the same tongue, especially when it comes to Ramon.
In the absence of an interview, at least with Haaretz, we had to settle for Ramon's statements at the cabinet meeting last Monday, which was devoted to the Annapolis summit. The meeting was a long one, and relatively exhaustive by Israeli standards. The ministers spent more than four hours discussing the upcoming summit, for the first time. Ramon's address was one of the longer, more anguished speeches delivered that day. It was his speech of defeat, and of rebuke, too: the defeat of his vision, and his censure of the people who he felt had missed the opportunity.
He formally addressed "Madame Foreign Minister," the leader of the negotiating team, but his words were aimed at a more crucial target at Livni's left - Olmert. The deputy prime minister began by recalling Egyptian president Anwar Sadat's visit to Israel, 30 years ago to the day of that cabinet meeting. "Sadat and Menachem Begin were courageous leaders," Ramon said. "They put behind them a great deal of negatives, a great deal of assets that had been considered inalienable, and decided to make peace."
Olmert chose to focus on the calendar instead. "Tomorrow," he said, "I meet with Hosni Mubarak, and I can say that it will be happening at more or less the same date."
"I suggest that when we negotiate, we look at history," Ramon said. "I thought and still think that it isn't too late to create a post-Annapolis political horizon, which we didn't have the sense to do beforehand. Meaning, we say to the Palestinians, if you carry out the first step of the road map, this is what will happen. That is what's known as a political horizon. It has advantages for us, too. Madame Foreign Minister, it is a mistake to say we give but do not receive when we create a political horizon. In my opinion, it is a serious diplomatic mistake, with elements of missed opportunity."
Ramon also touched on the issue of Jerusalem. "I know it's a charged topic and that there is a political problem, but we aren't about to abandon national interests because of political problems, right?" he said cynically. "To say the Arab neighborhoods wouldn't be under Israeli sovereignty but Palestinian sovereignty, is that giving? It's getting rid of it! These days I'm engaged in a Jerusalem bypass. We have to invest NIS 80 million in educational institutions in eastern Jerusalem, beyond the fence, when ultimately we all know that they won't be part of Israel. So why invest?"
"They won't want to lose their blue (Israeli) identity cards," said Minister Yitzhak Cohen of Shas.
"I'm not asking them," Ramon said. "If we were to say that, maybe we could get international legitimacy at Annapolis for the Jewish neighborhoods Har Homa, Gilo, Neve Yaakov, Pisgat Zeev ... could we have tried, Madame Foreign Minister? We could have looked into it, perhaps achieved some gain thereby? Perhaps, Madame, we could have received recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel? We didn't try. We set a strategy that we must not do that. I believe it to be a mistake."
"Barak tried," Minister Meir Sheetrit said.
"I'm talking about now," Ramon said. "The fact that we once tried and failed doesn't mean we are always going to fail."
"The same guys will always be there," Barak mumbled. "Here, since then, the government has changed four times."
"Perhaps," said Ramon, "but maybe they learned something, too."
"They even bring back the same bureaucrats," Barak continued to object.
Ramon, meanwhile, changed the subject to boundaries. "We could have achieved international recognition of the settlement blocs at Annapolis," he said. "I'm not saying we would have succeeded, but we could have tried. If we were to receive that, then we wouldn't have to freeze construction in the settlements inside these blocs."
"Don't expect that they'd recognize them in negotiations with Tzipi [Livni]," Barak interjected.
"I don't expect anything," Ramon answered. "I'm just saying, let's try. The same goes for the refugees: We could have tried to narrow down the core problems, not solve them all, and what couldn't be agreed upon, could have been postponed. Instead we've postponed everything. We could have created a new international consensus with ramifications in the field. That isn't called giving. The entire petty, nickel and dime concept that we're giving, as they once said about the Gaza Strip - what exactly am I giving? The only thing I'm giving away is my troubles ... Madame Foreign Minister, I hear what you said about not starting a backgammon game with blows. These aren't blows. It's an attempt to reach an understanding. If somebody thinks that negotiating is fighting, we'll never reach an agreement."
At the end of his address, Ramon addressed Olmert directly. He sounded to be almost in despair, said the ministers at the meeting. He had a proposal that he thought would introduce content, some kind of significance, into the barren summit meeting. Ramon suggested that Olmert declare at the summit that he meant to enact a "evacuation-compensation" law for settlers in the West Bank: Anybody willing to leave his home before the evacuation in the permanent status agreement would receive appropriate compensation. This idea was not Ramon's Ami Ayalon of Labor has been trying to promote such a law for a long time, and spoke of it at the cabinet meeting before Ramon did.
"If there are people who want to leave now, and all the indicators show that at least half do, let's let them go. First of all, it's humane. We know that ultimately we'll be evacuating them, so why should they stay for another five or ten years? And it would send an international message. Without blows, without clashes, without creating a national rift ... I fear what will happen if we try to evacuate so much as a single miserable shack. Look what happened at Amona," where hundreds were hurt in violent clashes over the demolition of nine homes. "If 35,000 people can be evacuated without violence, and it would bring us an international advantage, then Mr. Prime Minister, why not do it? Believe me, if you were to say that at Annapolis, that would be the ultimate political horizon! Just saying that at Annapolis would be the simplest thing in the world. It's a new message. The entire Annapolis meeting would look completely different." Olmert didn't comment on this, either.
Zero chance of success
Neither Lieberman nor Yishai neutered Annapolis, says MK Tzachi Hanegbi (Kadima), chairman of the Foreign Affairs and Security Committee. The ones who ruined it were the Palestinians. "If the Palestinians were to show elementary flexibility, Olmert wouldn't have avoided corresponding demonstrations of flexibility and the summit would have become more 'dramatic,'" said Hanegbi, an associate of the prime minister and knowledgable about the meeting. "Since the Palestinians remain stubborn and extreme, I see no possibility of achieving a permanent arrangement in 2008. That timetable is ludicrous. The Palestinians remain as extreme as they ever were, even on declarative issues such as recognition of Israel as a Jewish state."
Hanegbi, once a hawk and now a moderate right-winger, is pleased that the political dialogue between Israel and the Palestinians will be resuming at Annapolis under the wing of influential countries such as Saudi Arabia. However, he also sees the "frustrating" side of the conference.
"Although the meeting and the process following it are supposed to be [Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud] Abbas' last chance to end the tragic conflict, whose price has been paid chiefly by the Palestinian people during the last 60 years, we have seen no indication of moderation in their demands. That attests to the hopelessness of the whole process."
Divisions that have lasted for 60 years won't be fixed in a year, Hanegbi predicts, "especially since Israel is making an agreement conditional on a complete change in the situation in Gaza. Islamic Jihad and Hamas will not vanish from Gaza in 2008."
He does not think Olmert has turned left. "On security issues Olmert has strong positions, whether about fighting again in Lebanon or what happened in Syria, according to foreign reports. On the diplomatic front, Olmert truly believes we have a Palestinian partner in Gaza. His view is in utter contrast to evaluations by a lot of intelligence sources, but he fights for his view with great determination."
Us quit? Certainly not
A top source in Shas tried to calm the troubled waters raised last week by the threats and pressure that Shas chairman Eli Yishai has dealt the prime minister in order to empty the Annapolis summit of "core issues," mainly Jerusalem.
"True, Shas is a right-wing party," the source said, "and there's no question that our street doesn't like discussing Jerusalem, but to quit? Certainly not. Even if Olmert were to raise the topic of Jerusalem at the summit, Shas wouldn't resign from the coalition. We'd vote against it in the cabinet and the Knesset, but we'd stay, and I say that after many conversations I've had with Rabbi Ovadia (Yosef, the Shas movement's spiritual leader)," the source said.
"We would quit over substance, not declarations. Who can tell us when to resign? Lieberman? Who is he to determine things for us? We'd wait for the negotiations and if, toward their culmination, we see that Jerusalem is to be divided, then I assume we'd quit. But a paper read at a conference, when everybody knows it is unlikely to be carried out, is no reason to leave, and we have no intention of leaving," he said.
The source, who is closely associated with Yosef, says Shas is first and foremost a social party. Its voters are on the right, but they vote for Shas for "social reasons," he says.
"The battle over allocations in the 2008 budget is no less important to us than the core issues," he says. "To this day, Shas has had no significant social victories. Labor can claim the minimum wage, the Pensioners Party has the old-age allowances, but what does Shas have to show to its supporters? We'll fix that in the next budget."
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