In the negotiations he is conducting with the Palestinians, Ehud Olmert is becoming increasingly like the fox in the parable, who starved himself to make it through a hole in the fence and into the vineyard. There, he gorged himself - and could not get back out through the fence because he was too bloated. The prime minister is mostly focused on how to trick his coalition into staying together, so that he can survive in his job and, allegedly, fulfill the task he has taken upon himself: to reach an agreement with Abu Mazen (Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas). As a consequence, he is preventing himself from being able to move forward toward his declared aim. When he rejects discussion on a settlement of the Jerusalem issue, the meetings with Abu Mazen are tantamount to flights to nowhere.
On the face of it, we are expected to be forgiving of Olmert's verbal acrobatics. One day he is unwilling to discuss the future of Jerusalem, the next he includes the subject in his daily agenda, and on a third day, he promises to discuss it only after agreement is reached on the other issues in dispute. This political conduct we are supposed to consider reasonable in light of his coalition circumstances.
However, such a tolerant assumption fails to take into account the current circumstances: Olmert is not a leader of the same standing as Menachem Begin, who was able to go to the Camp David summit while people in Israel believed that he intended to settle in Neot Sinai after his tenure, and then returned from the United States having promised to give up the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt. He is also nothing like Yitzhak Rabin, who courageously stood by his decision to divert from his original position, which adamantly rejected negotiations with the PLO, and he tried to implement the Oslo Accords. He is also different from Ariel Sharon, whose cynicism allowed him to nonchalantly fend off the claim that his decision to evacuate the Gaza Strip was a blatant contradiction of his political and settlement ideology. Olmert is made of different stuff: He is a standard politician, lacking in the charisma that could lead the masses in a new direction.
Therefore, when the prime minister twists his tongue into knots to assuage the respective suspicions of two groups listening to what he has to say - Shas on the one hand and Abu Mazen and his colleagues on the other - he seems more like a tightrope walker who is scared of falling than a clever politician who knows where he is headed. When Olmert declares that today we are not talking with the Palestinians about Jerusalem, he gives the impression of weakness. People listen to him and wonder to themselves: And what about tomorrow? Will this silence about the city's future continue?
This raises the following consideration: The need to reach an agreement on the status of Jerusalem is the core of the conflict, and thus needs to be discussed. How is it possible to evade this? Under the current circumstances, in which we have a dilapidated Palestinian leadership and an Israeli government under a Shas ultimatum, the negotiations have a heavy odor of insufficient seriousness. Real negotiations are meant to focus on the issues in dispute, are expected to encounter crises, and are meant to cause serious internal debate among both nations. When this does not take place, when Olmert and Abu Mazen routinely hold polite meetings while on the ground there is no real change in the behavior of either side, the diplomatic contacts between them are like an orchestrated dance. The ceremonial character of the negotiations with the Palestinians fits the political realities in Israel and the public mood: The polls suggest that the majority supports, for the time being, Likud and the other parties on the right. This is also the mood in the Knesset. Therefore, Olmert's political maneuvering will presumably die out on its own. On the other hand, there is a strong likelihood that were the two sides to be presented with a peace plan that offered them a promising future, they would adopt it even though they have their differences - vis-a-vis one another and also internally - about each of its central elements.
At the heart of this assumption lies the leaders' determination to take a chance, to talk with the enemy, to cut into the most sensitive aspects of the conflict, and ask for the the public's trust in their positions. This entails leaders who speak with honesty to the public, who involve it in the details of the negotiations, who expose the difficulties to the people, and don't try to hide the concessions that need to be made. This is not the way things stand in the current Israeli realities: Olmert and his partners in power believe, for some reason, that peace is something you do with trickery.
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