A Lethargic Political Debate

The opening of the Knesset's winter session yesterday was boring with many MKs absent. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert came to present his diplomatic initiative and spoke about the concessions Israel will have to make on its way to a compromise agreement with the Palestinians, but the opposition was hard-pressed to come up with a few cat calls complaining of "dividing Jerusalem." Gone are the days when such talk stirred fiery emotions, forcing the prime minister to pause again and again. Either Olmert knows how to hypnotize the plenum or no one is taking his diplomatic initiative seriously.

Olmert designed his speech to show direction and determination. To convince the Knesset and public that he seriously intends to "give impetus and a chance to a substantive diplomatic process in cooperation with Palestinian Authority President Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas]," Olmert warned that Israel will not find better partners than Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayad. That if they are allowed to fall, Hamas will take over the West Bank. And if Israel gives up on the diplomatic process and sticks to the status quo, as opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu proposes, it will find itself in "a bloody demographic struggle steeped in tears."

Olmert believes that if the Palestinian positions are reasonable and Israel is flexible to a certain degree, it will be possible to present a joint declaration at the Annapolis conference that will frame the direction toward a political settlement. He has no doubt that such an achievement will include Israeli concessions, on the "core issues" as well.

The red lines that Olmert presented in his address all touched on the implementation of the settlement, not on its principles. The most important is his declaration that there will be no Israeli withdrawal before the terrorist groups are contained. The second, a sort of warning, is that he is aware of the gap between Abbas and Fayad's declarations and their ability to carry them out, so he said their "test" would be in "providing proof on the ground."

These statements are meant to appease Shas and Yisrael Beiteinu and secure their support. They can be described as "clauses for safeguarding the coalition," and they suggest that everything is just talk until the Palestinians manage to do away with terrorism.

But Olmert did not present any view or red lines about the substantive issues. He did not promise that Jerusalem will remain unified, or that the Palestinian refugees will not return to Israel, or that there will be no returning to the 1967 lines. This caution leaves him with a great deal of room to maneuver, and makes it difficult on his rivals to catch him on any promises.

On the other hand, he will be blamed for being willing to make excessive concessions. But Olmert is not troubled by this. From his point of view, he is not negotiating from the Knesset podium, so he does not feel he needs to specify his views. He is trying to give the political debate a lethargic tone until the results of the negotiations become clear, without wasting energy in battles of attrition with the right.

Still, he could not but stick it to Ehud Barak a little. Without referring to him specifically, he spoke of "attempts" by earlier leaders to reach a settlement and of the "sense of failure that many experienced while trying to take big and courageous steps which at times hinders their freedom of movement today."