A Process for Its Own Sake

A picture with the Saudi prince in a white galabia would be a nice diplomatic achievement for Olmert, but the results of his policy will be decided in the West Bank and in Gaza, and not on the lawn in Washington.

It's all political, say the prime minister's critics. According to them, the talks between Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas are only meant to enable Olmert to stay in power. When Ariel Sharon declared that he would leave Gaza, he received favorable media coverage, his files in the State Prosecutor's Office were closed and he achieved a coalition with the Labor Party. Olmert is trying to follow in his footsteps; he also wants to be an "etrog" - in the same manner in which Sharon was safeguarded by the media from all harm because of the disengagement. [The etrog is the fruit used in Sukkot ritual, which is carefully protected from damage]. But in Olmert's case it's all talk: He is weak, Abbas is weak, and even if the two manage to reach an agreement, it will be worthless.

However, justifed the criticism is, it may be seen as a gesture of kindness to Olmert. It's fortunate that he has a political interest in holding talks with the chair of the Palestinian Authority; otherwise he would not be doing so. If Olmert believed that the talks are damaging his status among Israelis, he would have stuck with the diplomatic freeze and with the claim that "there's no partner," which he inherited from his predecessors Sharon and Ehud Barak.

The coalition and the public back him, and he would somehow repel the pressures of U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Olmert's decision in favor of a diplomatic process testifies to the fact that even after the seven bad years of Camp David and the intifada, there is political value to a compromise with the Palestinians and it can be resurrected.

Olmert's problem is that neither his decision to hold talks with Abbas, nor his agreement to discuss the "core issues" - permanent borders, Jerusalem and the refugees, which he once feared - is sufficient. Even if he arrives at the Washington summit without any additional terror attacks being perpetrated until then and reaches a reasonable agreement of principles with Abbas, and even if the Saudis come to the meeting with their senior leadership, the path he has chosen leads through dangerous minefields.

The first minefield consists of the vague definition of the negotiations' aims. When Olmert came to power, he presented a clear goal: to leave the territories in order to preserve Israel's Jewish majority. Now he is avoiding such declarations. He says that his talks with Abbas and the planned meeting in Washington merely constitute a preamble to additional, more detailed negotiations about the two-state solution. Inviting the Saudis was designed to provide backing and support for the weak Abbas.

Such talk arouses suspicions that the process was designed only for its own sake, and that Olmert has no clear plan for the day after the summit in November. The danger is that on the day following the widely publicized event and the friendly declarations, the talks will degenerate into depression and will have difficulty taking off amid the daily pains of the Qassams, the checkpoints and the internal problems. The great expectations will turn into disappointments, and once again it will be shown that there is no one to talk to and nothing to talk about, and the danger of a third intifada will increase.

The second minefield is Abbas' weakness. The Palestinian leader is afraid even to take responsibility for a few cities in the West Bank. How will he be able to build a state and enforce order and security? According to the vision of Olmert and Rice, the agreement will present the Palestinians with a "diplomatic horizon," and Abbas in turn will present it during elections and will win another mandate from the Palestinian public. But Abbas won the elections in the past as well - yet this did not make a strong leader. Even if he convinces his electorate to support the agreement, he will have difficulty implementing it, and Hamas will be able to say: we told you so. Olmert's fears that a "shelf agreement" with Abbas will only be the starting point for additional Israeli concessions to be realized.

The third minefield is the negotiators' total lack of room to maneuver. In international opinion, the December 2000 Clinton plan for a final-status solution has become the reasonable solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Olmert and Abbas cannot diverge from it, lest each of them be accused of making major concessions to the other side, and be removed from office. Since they cannot implement it either, their real efforts will be devoted to finding escape hatches and avoiding the truly difficult decisions. That is the background to Olmert's attempts to reduce the agreement of principles to one page of a general summary and to his announcement that it would be implemented in line with the road map; in other words, in long stages that are prone to obstacles and conflicts.

If Olmert wants his political interest to be translated into diplomatic advantage, he has to think carefully about the day after the summit in Washington. He should ask Shimon Peres and Ehud Barak what happens when the beautiful expectations are destroyed. A picture with the Saudi prince in a white galabia would be a nice diplomatic achievement for Olmert, but the results of his policy will be decided in the West Bank and in Gaza, and not on the lawn in Washington.