By Jackson Diehl
Thursday, November 8, 2007
JERUSALEM -- In a bold speech broadcast on national television Sunday night, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert explicitly overturned the judgments that have guided Israeli governments for the past seven years. Israel, he said, does have a worthy negotiating partner in the Palestinian Authority. It cannot afford to postpone negotiations or drag its feet in endless talks. "Real accomplishments" are possible before President Bush leaves office. "We will not avoid fulfilling our own obligations" -- such as dismantling West Bank settlements -- "to the letter," Olmert said, " . . . no matter how difficult it is."
For the next several days, Israel's talk radio and op-ed pages converged on a single subject -- but it was not Olmert's groundbreaking speech. Instead, the buzz was all about something that took place at a soccer game in Haifa while Olmert was speaking. Before the game began, an announcer asked for a moment of silence in honor of former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, who led Israel toward peace in the early 1990s before being assassinated on Nov. 4, 1995. Hundreds in the crowd, most of them supporters of the visiting Jerusalem team, responded with boos; some began lustily singing songs in honor of Yigal Amir, the man who murdered him.
The message drawn from this episode by Israeli security officials, as well as pundits, was grim: The return Olmert signaled to an aggressive pursuit of a final peace with Palestinians also will mean the comeback of the ugly and potentially violent resistance from Israel's far right. The soccer game wasn't the only sign. Posters showing Israeli President Shimon Peres, another peace advocate, wearing an Arab headdress have appeared on walls around Jerusalem this week, an explicit echo of the propaganda that preceded the attack on Rabin 12 years ago.
In his speech to the Saban Forum, an annual conference sponsored by the Brookings Institution, Olmert directly took on the mantle of Rabin, who, he said, "was willing to take chances, to expose himself to criticism, to face the accusatory voices both domestic and international. He did everything in order to realize the opportunity." Said Olmert: "This is a legacy according to which I intend to lead the state of Israel over the coming months."
The problem will be the other legacies from the peace processes of the past. That's not only potential Jewish violence. There is also the probable terrorism of Palestinian rejectionists, above all a Hamas movement that has been excluded from the upcoming U.S.-sponsored Annapolis conference and bottled up in the Gaza Strip. There is the inability of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's West Bank authority to control its own militia-gangs, and political rivalries in Israel that may prevent Olmert from taking quick steps on settlements. Then there is the incurable proclivity of both Israelis and Palestinians to burden negotiations with maximalist demands and negotiating tricks intended to elide what both sides know to be the available settlement terms.
In six private meetings this fall, Olmert and Abbas covered most of the "core issues" of the conflict and found that they were not far from agreement on them. They subsequently decided with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that Annapolis should not attempt to formally resolve those issues but simply kick off negotiations, with the goal of striking a deal by the end of next year. Yet Israel's negotiating team has mounted a campaign to pressure Abbas to accept, as part of an otherwise vague Annapolis statement, language recognizing Israel as the "homeland for the Jewish people." Although the West Bank leadership no longer resists that concept, accepting it means implicitly giving up the "right of return" of Palestinian refugees to Israel -- a concession Abbas can be expected to make only as part of a final settlement tradeoff.
Such gamesmanship, which is echoed on the Palestinian side, only tends to confirm the cynicism with which most Israelis regard the Annapolis initiative. Terrorized by seemingly unstoppable suicide bombings three years ago, the country is now relatively peaceful, prosperous and almost complacent. Jerusalem is teeming with tourists from Russia and Europe, and Israelis themselves have returned to shopping in the Arab souk. In polls, most say they favor giving up the West Bank for a peace settlement. But most also say they think the Palestinians need a deal more than they do.
For Olmert, Abbas and Rice, the motivation for bulling through this familiar pattern of resistance may not be just courage but fear. All three know that if they fail this time, the result will not be the mere continuation of a miserable status quo. More likely, it will be another eruption of bloodshed and the consolidation of Hamas as the preeminent Palestinian power. That means not Abbas but Hamas's patron, Iran, will become the arbiter of whether Israel is accepted as "a Jewish homeland."