ANALYSIS / Olmert Racing Against Clock for Deal With Palestinians

Abbas hesitant to accept agreement on priciples for Palestinian state; FM: Olmert's maneuver too hasty.

On the eve of his expected resignation, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is making a final effort to conclude a 'shelf agreement' with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Olmert has no time for detailed negotiations, nor does he consider them necessary.

He therefore presented Abbas with a proposal for an agreement on the fundamental principles of a Palestinian state. Now, the ball is in Abbas's court.

Olmert is fighting on two fronts: against Abbas, who is hesitant to accept the proposal, and against Ministers Tzipi Livni and Ehud Barak, who warn against a hasty, last-minute agreement.

But the premier has nothing to lose. If, as expected, he fails, he can say he tried until the end, and is leaving a reasonable outline for an agreement to his successor. But if he somehow succeeds, and Abbas accepts the proposal, his critics will face a dilemma: The agreement will receive American support, and neither Livni nor Barak want to take on Washington or be painted as enemies of peace. Labor and most of Kadima will have to back the agreement.

That is precisely why Barak and Livni dislike Olmert's maneuver. If it fails, they will be viewed as partners in the failure. But if it succeeds, he will go home feted as the hero who brought peace, while they will be left to cope with rightist demonstrations, a crumbling coalition, and a tough election fight against Benjamin Netanyahu, who will portray them as having given Jerusalem to Hamas and turned Tel Aviv into the next Sderot.

Livni says there is no reason to hurry, and instead of a half-baked agreement, it is better to continue the negotiations and create a mechanism for continuing them next year. Barak says the gaps between the parties' positions are too wide to enable an agreement: The Palestinians want an army; they want Israel to evacuate Ariel and Ma'aleh Adumim; and they refuse to concede the "right of return." His aides warn that raising Palestinian hopes only to disappoint them will drive them into Hamas' arms.

Olmert replies that Livni and Barak were both at last year's Annapolis conference, where the parties pledged to try to conclude an agreement by the end of this year. Moreover, his proposal differs little from what Barak offered in 2000. In addition, he believes it is better for Israel to conclude an agreement while both Abbas and George Bush are still in power.

And finally, Olmert argues, the agreement will not be implemented for another 10 years. Meanwhile, Israel will receive international legitimacy and support against demands for a binational state.

But with or without a shelf agreement, one can predict with great confidence that barring unforeseen international pressure, Israel will not be leaving the West Bank next year.