Next Year in Jerusalem

Olmert has recoiled from taking practical steps to realize the clear message reflected in his statements about a peace deal, which now sound like no more than prayers.

Waiting for the Messiah, like the hope of rebuilding the Temple, is one of the basic tenets of Judaism: Endless prayers and flourishing philosophical thought express the vision of the coming redemption. But this faith is self-defeating. Its very presence at the core of religious longing, inscribed in Psalms recited three times a day and lasting from generation to generation, shows that it will never come to pass.

Something like this is happening to the vision of peace with the Palestinians. A kind of mantra has evolved which no one seriously intends to implement. It took Israel only three days in June 1967 to occupy (in a justified war) the West Bank, and for 40 years it has been entangled in the net it created for itself by establishing the settlements. Israel makes do with making proposals, formulating solutions and raising ideas, but in fact it takes no real steps to end the conflict with the Palestinians. The more years that pass, the more complicated the solution becomes, as shown by the outcome of the decision to withdraw from Gaza. But the necessary conclusion is not presented: to reach a permanent arrangement based on Israel's giving up the territories.

In Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's speech at the opening of the Knesset's winter session, he illustrated yet again the ritual nature of Israel's call for peace with the Palestinians. On the one hand, Olmert spoke of his determination to give a chance to real steps and that any other option "means a bloody and tear-soaked demographic struggle that will not move Israel ahead." On the other hand, he made it clear that the planned summit in Annapolis is an international meeting intended only to support dialogue with the Palestinians and that no real negotiations will take place.

On the one hand, he declared his faith in Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayad's sincerity and the chance of reaching an understanding with them. On the other hand, he said he has been cautious about reaching an agreement with them. On the one hand, he pointed out the missed opportunities to achieve peace in the past and declared his preference for the risks of peace over the agonies of war. On the other hand, he neutralized the message alluded to in these statements by saying that the road to peace "is still long and full of obstacles and difficulties."

These contradictions could be solved by realizing that Olmert was using a rhetorical tactic stemming from political exigencies, but this would be too simplistic a way to decipher his actions.

National leaders will always be bound by opposing considerations when they make decisions of the magnitude the prime minister spoke of Monday in the Knesset. Israel's sad reality in October 2007 concerning the Palestinians shows that most of its leaders have preferred political interests over the necessary national decision: a release from the burden of the occupation.

Olmert perhaps reveals more of his internal vacillations than his predecessors. Since his election as prime minister he has made a number of reverberating speeches in which he ostensibly expressed the concept that the distortion created by the Six-Day War should be corrected.

That idea came to the fore in his post-election victory speech, which became an appendix to the coalition agreement: "We are prepared to give up parts of the beloved land of Israel."

This was the case in his speech at David Ben-Gurion's tomb last November: "The Palestinians will be able to establish an independent state ... that will enjoy full sovereignty with defined borders ... which will differ from the areas now under Israeli rule." It was heard at the Sharm el-Sheikh summit last June: "An opportunity has been created to seriously advance the diplomatic process in the region and I do not intend to let it pass."

And in the Kadima Council last month: "All the signs indicate that there is now a partner ... stagnation is retreat."

Olmert has recoiled from taking practical steps to realize the clear message reflected in these statements. When we recall that he refused to devote the Annapolis summit to the formulation of a document of principles, when he avoids opening official negotiations on the core issues and is not prepared to offer a binding timetable for talks, his Knesset speech sounds like no more than a prayer.