Olmert's Speech / Olmert Has an Agenda

1. The awakening: Prime Minster Ehud Olmert yesterday shook off the uncertainty that had engulfed him after the war in Lebanon and made it clear during his speech in Sde Boker that he has an agenda: He wants to pull out of most of the West Bank, evacuate most of the settlements and establish a Palestinian state in their stead, in order to guarantee a Jewish majority in Israel over the long run. Olmert has been preaching this for three years now, but the packaging has changed: The unilateral convergence plan that he proposed during his early days in office has been shelved, and now he wants to accomplish his goals through "dialogue" with the Palestinian Authority.

Yesterday, Olmert responded to the challenge set by author and bereaved father David Grossman during his speech of admonishment at the memorial for Yitzhak Rabin: "Turn to the Palestinians, Mr. Olmert, address them over the heads of Hamas - approach them with the bravest and most serious plan Israel can offer."

The prime minister is offering the Palestinians a bevy of enticements, from the release of "important" prisoners to the opening of the border crossings and the establishment of industrial parks. But he is demanding a pricey down payment: meeting the conditions set by the Quartet (recognizing Israel, relinquishing violence and accepting previous Israeli-Palestinian accords), implementing the road map peace plan (i.e., disbanding terrorist organizations), and releasing abducted soldier Gilad Shalit. To date, the Palestinian leadership has rejected these demands, and it is doubtful whether they will accept them now only in return for the promises made at Sde Boker. But the proverbial "ball" of responsibility for the diplomatic impasse, and for translating the cease-fire in the Gaza Strip into a diplomatic initiative, has been boldly tossed into the Palestinian court.

In terms of its content, there was little new in the speech. Olmert had made most of his proposals public during press conferences and interviews in recent weeks. But this time, he packed it all into an organized framework, in a speech that he prepared at home last Saturday, and he used the impressive background of Ben-Gurion's burial site to boost its impact.

The cease-fire in Gaza and the Sde Boker speech will alleviate the pressure from his senior ministers, particularly Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Amir Peretz, who have been urging him to launch a diplomatic initiative. And on the international front, they will help him fend off European efforts to intervene in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which that are causing some concern in Jerusalem. Finally, they will help him to deal with growing support in Washington for switching to the Syrian track. And the public praise that Olmert showered on the Saudi Arabian initiative was supposed to warm hearts in Arab capitals.

2. Where is the border? Olmert said that the future border with the Palestinians will be determined according to President George Bush's letter to Ariel Sharon of April 2004. It is worth recalling what this letter says: "In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli population centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949." In Israel, this was interpreted as American support for annexing the settlement blocs and setting the border more or less along the route of the separation fence.

But trouble lies further into the letter, in a sentence that promises the Palestinians that any change in the Green Line must be agreed on by both sides. This means that the offer to pull back to the fence is only the opening volley, and Israel will have to compensate the Palestinians for any land it annexes.

Another problem is Jerusalem, which was not mentioned in yesterday's speech. The prime minister simply ignored it: He offered nothing to the Palestinians, and did not even pronounce that it will "remain Israel's capital forever." The reasons for Olmert's ambiguity are obvious: The problem will not disappear on its own, and it has stymied the peace process in the past.

3. Leadership and modesty: Some of Olmert's aides were opposed to the idea of a dramatic political speech, arguing that it would not help him, and as late as yesterday, they were trying to soften some of the prime minister's wording. Olmert thought otherwise. He surely wished to show that his self-confidence was back, that he is not afraid of Avigdor Lieberman's shadow and is not alarmed by the army's warnings that Hamas will use the cease-fire to further build up its strength. He wanted to show that his was not the "hollow leadership" of which Grossman accused recent prime ministers. What remains to be seen is whether the public buys this, and repays Olmert for his speech with better results in the polls.

4. War? What war? Prior to the 2001 elections, Reuven Adler warned Sharon not to respond to any allegations against him regarding the Lebanon War. "As far as you are concerned, there was no Lebanon War," he told his friend. And he succeeded in eliminating this problematic issue from the election campaign. Olmert adopted a similar tactic in his speech: no mention of the war, Lebanon or Syria. As if reality had gone back to the day before the war.