If Ehud Olmert was hoping a White House lawn moment next week would revive his sagging political fortunes, the Syrians and the Palestinians have not been playing along with the Israeli prime minister.
Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, abruptly canceled his meeting with Olmert last week. And the Syrians have been notably silent about Olmert’s offer of the Golan Heights in exchange for an end to backing for terrorist groups.
The original hope was that Olmert would be able to announce the acceptance of some U.S.-set benchmarks for easing conditions for the Palestinians after Abbas had met his own benchmarks for ending attacks on Israel.
Those hopes are on hold with the Gaza Strip descending into civil war and Abbas apparently incapable of protecting his own forces, let alone Israel.
The Bush administration has made it clear to Israeli officials that it needs progress on the Palestinian front if it is to progress in its efforts to isolate Iran. Israel believes the Islamic Republic will own a nuclear weapon as early as 2009, and sees economic isolation as the best way to stop it.
Shaul Mofaz, the Israeli transportation minister who leads the Israeli side in the U.S.-Israel strategic dialogue, focused on Iran in last week’s session. However, describing his meeting with Condoleezza Rice the day before the session, he said the U.S. secretary of state spent most of her time asking about the Palestinians — a sign, he suggested, of the primacy the Bush administration is assigning to the issue.
But Olmert is expected to come to Washington for his June 19 meeting with President Bush without much to announce.
Ostensibly, Abbas’ cancellation had to do with the fratricide now consuming the Gaza Strip.
“What we need immediately in Gaza is to stop the fighting,” Riyad Mansour, the Palestinian envoy to the United Nations said Monday at a Washington panel sponsored by the American Task Force on Palestine. “President Abbas is trying to revive the cease-fire,” referring both to the cease-fire between Hamas forces and Fatah fighters loyal to Abbas, as well as to the on-again, off-again Hamas-Israel cease-fire.
Mansour said an Israeli agreement to extend the terms of the cease-fire to the West Bank, where it maintains security control, could bolster Abbas and better position him for resumed talks with Olmert. Terms of the expanded cease-fire would include an end to arrests and targeted killings.
“For President Abbas to be able to enforce the cease-fire, it would have to spread to the West Bank,” he told the panel, which included Jeremy Issacharoff, the deputy chief of mission at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, and Nabil Fahmy, the Egyptian ambassador to Washington.
Hamas now justifies rocket fire on Israel by saying, “They kill us in Nablus, they kill us in Jenin,” Mansour said. “To have quiet on both fronts would help develop a political front.”
Issacharoff countered that Israel’s efforts to ease conditions and tamp down the violence — an allusion to the benchmarks set down in March by top U.S. officials in the region — were frustrated at every turn by Hamas recalcitrance.
He noted the failed attempt over the weekend by Palestinian gunmen to nab an Israeli soldier and the continued barrage of rockets from the Gaza Strip into Israel’s southern towns.
“This was a cross-border incursion we had to deal with. The rockets have to be dealt with,” Issacharoff said. “! Today in the Palestinian Authority, control is not being exercised by the moderates.”
Western observers in the region say the situation is not as dire as the Israelis suggest.
“The fog of war is tough anywhere — it’s real, real tough in Gaza,” a senior Western official who asked not to be identified told JTA. “With worst-case scenarios, what it looks like in the afternoon is almost never what develops the next morn. Kids are still taking their final exams right now. If the sky was falling, that wouldn’t be taking place.”
The official said forces loyal to Abbas were still in control at key crossings: Karni into Israel and Rafah into Egypt.
Likely not to be featured on next week’s agenda is Syria.
Israel spoke to Bush for an hour last month for permission to reach out to Syria, which is reviled by the Bush administration for its efforts to crush Lebanon’s democracy and its facilitation of the insurgency in Iraq.
Bush gave the green light, and the Syrians finally responded Tuesday when Deputy Foreign Minister Ahmed Arnous said his country “is prepared to resume talks, without any conditions, according to the land-for-peace principle and to achieve stability and security in the region.”
Arnous appeared to be ruling out Israel’s demand that Damascus show its willingness to shun Lebanese Hezbollah and Palestinian terrorist groups and loosen its ties to Iran. But Arnous did not indicate whether Syria would abandon its own precondition for a complete return of the Golan Heights, which has been annexed by Israel.
“President Bashar Assad has been clear about Syria’s willingness to resume negotiations according to the Madrid principles and international resolutions,” Arnous said, referring to the 1991 conference that attempted to jump-start peace negotiations between Israel and its neighbors.
Another sign of U.S. anxiety over the Israeli-Palestinian process played out last week in Congress, where a non-binding resolution in the House of Representatives celebrating the 40th anniversary of Israel’s Six-Day War victory passed almost by stealth — in a voice vote in an almost empty chamber. The resolution had a paltry 14 cosponsors.
The members of Congress who did register remarks focused almost exclusively on the failed peace process and not on Israel’s victory.
In remarks, Democrats faulted the Bush administration for not doing enough to keep the peace process on track and the Palestinians from descending into chaos. A Senate version of the motion is on hold.
In March, top U.S. officials assigned Israel and the Palestinians a series of benchmarks that would create security for the Israelis and ease conditions for the Palestinians. Both sides have yet to respond, and Bush may press Olmert on the issue.
The emphasis on the Palestinians is a sign of political weakness for both Bush and Olmert, Raphael Israeli, a Hebrew University professor of Middle Eastern history, told JTA.
“Bush is hoping, especially in view of his failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, for something on the Palestinian front,” Israeli said. “Olmert is in peril in view of the hanging verdict of the Winograd commission,” the inquiry into last summer’s Lebanon war that has already condemned the government’s handling of the war and is to deliver its final report by the end of the summer.
Such weakness creates opportunities, Fahmy said at the American Task Force on Palestine panel. Weak leaders are likelier to take risks, the Egyptian envoy said, noting that the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat reached out to the Americans and then Israel partly because the shadow of his predecessor, Gamal Abdel Nasser, loomed so large.
Peace initiatives in the region have “never been from a point of s! trength, ” Fahmy said.
He said the sides should seize the initiative of the renewed Saudi effort to push the 2002 Arab League plan, which envisions a return to the 1967 borders in exchange for comprehensive Arab peace.
“If we don’t initiate this process by the end of summer, I’m not sure we’ll have the political space among the parties,” Fahmy said, alluding to the full-fledged launch in the fall of the U.S. presidential campaign.