How Good It Is to Be Weak

Perhaps the panic choking the prime minister?s throat stems from the fact that Israel has never faced this situation: an Arab initiative, Arab mediators and an Arab vision of full and comprehensive peace.

'We want an average Israeli government, one that can collaborate with the Arab initiative', the Saudi foreign minister, Saud al-Faisal, said disparagingly. That is, al-Faisal explained, a government that is not too strong and always imposes what it wants, but also not too weak to be able to adopt the initiative. Olmert has succeeeded in creating extraordinary hermaphrodite: a government that in its weakness imposes its will.

The formula Olmert proposes is as follows. Think of him as Abu Mazen: a moderate leader, a seeker of peace saying the right things about the Arab initiative. But between you and me, the man is weak, and what do you want from him? He does not really rule. He is so far from ruling that there is a need for Arab mediators, the king of Jordan and the president of Egypt, so they and not him, who is powerless, can try to convince the Israeli public of the necessity and credibility of the Arab initiative.

Olmert does not need to be an outstanding rhetorician or even a statesman to market the Arab initiative. It almost sells itself. The way in which it is now presented by the Arab leaders offers a plan with two floors of the same building: immediate tactical conditions for initiating Arab negotiations with Israel - not only Palestinian negotiations - and strategic conditions for establishing full relations, including normalization. The tactical conditions entail freezing Israel's policy vis-a-vis the territories - including a halt to construction in settlements and the separation wall - a return to the status quo of September 2000, lifting the boycott on the Palestinian people and stopping the excavations near Al-Aqsa Mosque.

The first several conditions do not require negotiations; most of them are even included in the road map proposed by the Quartet. They constitute a gesture of goodwill, with the aim of building trust and generating momentum for the start of Arab-Israeli negotiations. The familiar strategic conditions are a full Israeli withdrawal, a solution for the status of Jerusalem, and a resolution of the refugee problem. Saud al-Faisal, who elaborated on these conditions, did not speak about the right of return and did not draw a map of the Holy Basin - everything is subject to negotiation.

There is a bonus attached to these conditions. They constitute a paved route to the ultimate vision, as defined by the secretary-general of the Arab League, Amr Moussa: "There is no normalization free of charge. But the Arabs are prepared, in accordance with the initiative, to enter into a final peace process and to regard the Israeli-Arab conflict as a thing of the past if we carry out and they carry out the mutual obligations."

Here are the explicit words: the end of the conflict. True, the end of the conflict does not mean that every last member of a street gang in Gaza will no longer seek to continue to harm Israelis. It does not mean that Hassan Nasrallah will kiss the cheek of Dalia Itzik, or that members of the Egyptian parliament from the Muslim Brotherhood will host Avigdor Lieberman at the Aswan Dam. But they would be acting outside the Arab consensus after it becomes clear that they have failed to perpetuate the old consensus. In any case, they would no longer be able to bask in a pan-Arab national stance. These are conditions that provide the Arab governments, instead of the organizations and gangs, the power to set policy.

Perhaps the panic choking the prime minister's throat stems from the fact that Israel has never faced this situation: an Arab initiative, Arab mediators and an Arab vision of full and comprehensive peace, of rapprochement not only with confrontation states but also with history. These are all knocking at Israel's door, but nobody is home.

Israel used to demand that Yasser Arafat "speak Arabic," the language of his public, as proof of the sincerity of his intentions. Now the time has come for the Israeli public to demand that Olmert "speak Hebrew" and wholeheartedly declare: "We call upon the Palestinian government and the government of Syria to negotiate with us on the basis of the Arab initiative, and we are prepared to pay the price," and to say this himself and not via Dalia Itzik's handshake with Rania, the queen of Jordan. But after all, he is a weak leader, and how mighty is his weakness and how sure of itself. Indeed, a commission of inquiry has never been established to investigate missed opportunities for peace.