Our Hope Is Not Yet Lost

A prime minister who is under criminal investigation - not to mention a trial - should not expect that his busy involvement with a diplomatic process, and pledges of peace or war, will shield him.

According to the Syrian daily Tishrin, "weak governments cannot make peace. They know how to make war."

Tishrin, a government mouthpiece which rightly defines Ehud Olmert's government as weak, therefore believes that "only a miracle" could lead Olmert to sign a peace treaty with Syria.

But the day before the article was published, the Syrian Press Agency instilled a little more hope into the negotiations. President Bashar Assad, the agency reported, had spoken for a long time over the phone to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan about the negotiations with Israel, after Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan visited the country. Other reports revealed that there was agreement in principle to host a meeting of low-level Israeli officials and a Syrian official.

At the same time, one could get the impression from the talks between Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas that progress has been made, even real progress, on the outlines of borders between Israel and the Palestinians. Now we need only see how the negotiations are progressing between Israel and Hamas through Egyptian Intelligence Minister Omar Suleiman, in the hope that there will be a turn-around on that front as well.

Olmert is indeed a lame duck. So far the question has always been asked of the Arab side whether their leaders can make critical decisions. Now, Israel faces that very question: Is there anyone in Jerusalem who can rise to the challenge? The advantage of lame ducks is that once they recognize their disabled status, they can sometimes take action that under other circumstances might be considered political suicide. For example, Ariel Sharon before the disengagement from Gaza. The disadvantage of lame ducks is, that they usually do not acknowledge their limp, or believe that it is a minor, passing condition. Thus they continue to behave as if their entire future were ahead of them.

This time, precisely because of his severe lameness, an opportunity might be presenting itself that could serve Olmert, and especially Israel. Instead of an all-encompassing aspiration to sign a comprehensive peace treaty with Syria, or to conclude negotiations with the Palestinians by the end of 2008, the prime minister could make do with a "deposit," of the type Rabin made in 1995.

Rabin's "deposit" was a package of agreements that formed the basis for the next round of negotiations with the next leader. Its function was at least to prepare public opinion in Israel for the next stage. If, as Assad claims, accord exists on 85 to 90 percent of the issues, and if on the Palestinian side there are essential agreements, then legal action against the prime minister is no reason to delay negotiations, especially not on technical or security arrangements.

Withdrawal from the Golan Heights or the territories needs a charismatic leader, one who is not on trial and can persuade the members of the cabinet and the public. That is not the case when the subject under discussion is still demilitarization of the Golan Heights, or security and economic cooperation as a condition for withdrawal. Committees of experts can pull up a lot of weeds that take up much time during talks, building up the "book of agreements" much before the need arises for charisma to take center stage.

This is an essential stage in any peace negotiation. It is true that old agreements might lose their validity, especially when not accompanied by government decisions that turn them into real policy. But to judge by Rabin's "deposit" which Syria never let go of, and which Israel too is now willing, after 13 years, to adopt as a basis for the continuation of negotiations; or to take the example of the road map, which has rolled on from administration to administration and from Israeli government to Israeli government since 2003 - such agreements do seem to have an impressive life span.

A prime minister who is under criminal investigation - not to mention a trial - should not expect that his busy involvement with a diplomatic process, and pledges of peace or war, will shield him.

But in the crack that might be found between suspicion and standing trial, between stepping down, if it happens, and continuing in office, it may be asked of Olmert that he not let rest for a minute the opportunity to leave Israel with a window of diplomatic opportunity, just at a time when there is a Palestinian partner and when on the Syrian side, the outlines of a partner are growing more distinct.