Is Ehud Olmert yielding on the Saudi proposal for Israeli-Arab peace?
That was the question Israel’s pundits were asking Sunday as the prime minister held another round of anti-climactic talks with the Palestinians while signaling he wanted to engage in big-picture diplomacy with the Arab League.
“Israel continues to make every effort to make the most of the chance for finding a comprehensive solution to the conflict between us and the Palestinians,” Olmert told his Cabinet before hosting Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas over lunch in Jerusalem. “We are willing to hold a dialogue with any grouping of Arab states about their ideas.”
Olmert aides said he was alluding to an Arab League working group set up to promote the Saudi proposal for comprehensive Israeli-Arab peace.
Jerusalem has cautiously welcomed the plan, first proposed in 2002 and reissued in Riyadh last month, while voicing misgivings about its call for a full Israeli withdrawal from lands captured in the 1967 Six-Day War and an agreed-upon solution to the Palestinian refugee problem.
But Israeli sources say that Olmert, facing continued diplomatic deadlock with the dominant Palestinian faction Hamas and an ascendant nuclear threat from Iran, is coming around to the idea of dealing directly with moderate Arab regimes.
While his government lacks the power to enact major concessions, Olmert could well be hoping to edge toward a peace deal along the lines of the Saudi proposal that would decisively marginalize Hamas.
“Olmert would very much like to say a qualified yes to the Arab initiative at present,” wrote Ma’ariv’s political commentator, Ben Caspit. “Therefore he is trying to create a delayed, challenged, censored agenda and to set this process in motion without calling things by their true name.
“Even if the chances of it ever maturing into something genuine are not high, that chance exists. And that too is something.”!
The Arab League may take the idea of direct contacts with Israel a step further when its foreign ministers convene Wednesday in Cairo. But Ahmed Aboul Gheit of Egypt dismissed the idea that such a channel of communication could replace direct talks between Israel and its declared enemies.
“These working groups are not mandated to negotiate, and I do not imagine that they will negotiate on behalf of anyone, whether the Palestinians, Syria or Lebanon,” Aboul Gheit told reporters Saturday.
Israeli Vice Premier Shimon Peres was similarly circumspect, noting that direct diplomacy with the Arab League would be difficult, as it does not formally recognize the Jewish state.
“We will meet to create a common ground in order to reach an agreement,” Peres told Israel Radio. “At this stage I think all sides are looking for the right channels that will allow us to meet and tackle issues that are still disputed.”
Caspit raised another possibility for Olmert’s sudden interest for a dramatic breakthrough with the Arab world — a looming interim report by the Israeli commission of inquiry into his handling of last year’s Lebanon war.
“Cynics perceive a transparent political initiative that is bereft of any point, lacking in all energy and which has a single goal: to precede the Winograd Committee’s interim report with some sort of political momentum that will stop the wave of publications, investigations and reports that are threatening to drown the prime minister,” Caspit wrote.
Whatever the truth, Olmert remains saddled with a U.S. request for regular talks with Abbas — no matter what their peacemaking efficacy.
Like Olmert, Abbas is weak domestically, as Hamas holds sway over the Palestinian Authority government and has robust militias to match against the armed forces of the moderate Fatah faction.
Both Israel and the Palestinians made clear that Sunday’s summit, the first of a series of twice-monthly meetings requested by U.S! . Secret ary of State Condoleezza Rice, was a matter of coordinating matters of immediate concern to their peoples rather than a final-status deal.
Aides said Olmert pressed Abbas to arrange the release of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier held hostage in the Gaza Strip, and halt Palestinian fire from Gaza into Israel.
Israel undertook in turn to expand the opening hours of Gaza border crossings in a bid to relieve Palestinian poverty.
While Olmert told his Cabinet that the talks would deliberately avoid the “core issues” of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he still spoke positively of his hopes to establish a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
“We will discuss other significant aspects that could contribute to the founding of a Palestinian state, like the administrative and security issues,” he said.
The next Olmert-Abbas meeting could be held in the West Bank city of Jericho, both sides said.