PARIS - Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's trip to Europe this week once again illustrated that the "peace process" is the most convenient diplomatic situation for Israel. Conducting high-level talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority; Israel's willingness to discuss the principles for ending the conflict; and gestures such as the release of prisoners are in themselves sufficient to remove international pressure on Israel to withdraw from the territories and to end the occupation.
At the same time, as long as it's all talk and there are no agreements or decisions that involve the evacuation of territories and the settlements, there is no internal pressure on the government either. The coalition continues to function and is not confronting demonstrations and protest from the right.
Olmert is well aware of that, and his policy is to march in the no-man's-land between talk and action. In all of his appearances in Paris and in London, Olmert lowered expectations regarding the Annapolis summit. "It's not a summit," he said repeatedly. What is it? "When you say summit you think of several days of discussions and negotiations between the participants. That is not the goal of the meeting in Annapolis, which from the beginning was to create an environment that will encourage direct talks." In other words, a photo op of statesmen expressing support for the "two-state solution" without discussing its content.
According to Olmert, the joint declaration to be presented at the summit will relate to all the "core issues," but will not offer solutions - only guidelines for detailed negotiations later on. And even if an agreement is achieved in the future, its implementation will be subject to the "road map." In other words, in the initial stage, ending Palestinian terror.
To translate the diplomatic language, Olmert is saying the following: I am responding to international expectations and talking to Mahmoud Abbas, although it is clear to me and to him that the situation on the ground will not change as a result of these talks. If I present a "diplomatic horizon" to the Fatah leaders, they may have a chance of surviving on the West Bank. And even if they fall and Hamas takes control of Ramallah, Nablus and Hebron, Israel will not be to blame. Meanwhile, we must not rush with negotiations, and implementation must be postponed, so that my coalition will not fall apart and my government will have an agenda.
Upon his return from Europe, Olmert is able to chalk up a victory. Nicolas Sarkozy and Gordon Brown adopted his message, and only encouraged him to continue with the rapprochement and the gestures to Abbas, and offered "support and involvement in the process." According to all the signs, Olmert did not hear any criticism of the settlements and the separation fence.
The media in France and Britain ignored Olmert almost completely; his meetings with the Jewish communities took place in half-empty halls; and in the streets there was not even a sign of the handful of demonstrators who greeted Ariel Sharon with posters in favor of Palestine. We can conclude from this that as long as there is no crisis, the "world" is not interested in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or its solution. It is satisfied that the sides are talking to each other. The general consensus that Abbas is weak and cannot deliver is preventing pressure on Israel for the time being.
In the internal Israeli arena, the prevailing feeling that "nothing will come of it" also helps the prime minister. The Annapolis summit and the talks preceding it are arousing absolutely no public interest. The opposition on the right and the left is silent. Olmert says that the coalition will get through the Annapolis summit successfully, and that "when the time comes" the future agreement will enjoy the support of most of the Jews in Israel.
He is not the first to benefit from the convenience of an ongoing "peace process" whose end is unknown - "There are no sacred dates," said Yitzhak Rabin. They used to say in condemnation of Israel that this policy is a plot designed to anesthetize international public opinion, and to cover for the expansion of the settlements and the devouring of lands. But Olmert, as opposed to his predecessors, declared from the very beginning that he wanted to leave the territories. He does not sanctify a single rock or hill. His motives are different: He wants to remain in power and to maintain broad political support for his diplomatic steps.
The only question is how long he can continue to march this way in no-man's-land, until the indifference turns into disappointment - which will increase the danger of a flare-up with the Palestinians, or could once again ignite the internal debate.