Prime Minister Ehud Olmert promised this week to go anywhere — without preconditions — to meet leaders of the 22 Arab nations to discuss their peace proposal. His stance was welcomed by some Israelis, but discounted by others as nothing but a publicity stunt.
“He is fighting for his political life and these declarations are designed to save him,” said Yaacov Shamir of the Hebrew University’s Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace. “I don’t think Arab leaders will take him seriously, but if they do, he will rush to meet them anywhere.”
Shamir said Olmert “doesn’t have enough legitimacy to implement such a plan,” while noting that “any opening of the political process would be welcomed by Israelis.”
The Arab League’s peace proposal calls for the normalization of relations with Israel in return for an Israeli withdrawal to its pre-1967 border, a resolution of the Palestinian refugee issue, and establishing East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. Despite concerns about conceding too much for a promise of peace, 41 percent of Israelis favor the plan, according to a poll Shamir conducted. He believes the numbers indicate that “Israelis are for renewal of the political process.” Gerald Steinberg, a professor of political studies at Bar-Ilan University, said he viewed Olmert’s comments as “all P.R.
“Some of it was for Olmert because this is the only potential platform he has, and [Secretary of State Condoleezza] Rice has been saying put on an act and so Olmert is,” he said. Steinberg said that Jordan’s King Abdullah, who met with Olmert this week in Jordan in an effort to advance the peace process, is also “putting on an act. He knows that there is not going to be a massive breakthrough [in the peace process], but he wants to go through the motions and pursue an anti-Iran and anti-Hamas alliance.”
Steinberg said that with Vice President Dick Cheney seeking to build an anti-Iran coalition, the administration needs to show “at least a semblance of progress on the Israeli-Palestinian track.”
Although conceding that it is “unlikely we will see an Arab delegation in Jerusalem soon,” Asher Arian of Tel Aviv University said Olmert does have a political mandate to conduct negotiations.
“He has a majority in the Knesset and his government is stable,” said Arian, a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute. “That public opinion doesn’t support him is also true. But that is like telling me George Bush is not fighting a war in Iraq because most of the Congress and the American public do not support him.”
“If the Arab states were to say okay, we’re coming to Israel to talk, Olmert would talk,” he added. “I think it’s much too complex to say it is all spin,” though noting that “today in Israeli politics everything is viewed cynically.”
According to Israeli Housing Minister Meir Sheetrit, the fact remains that Olmert is Israel’s prime minister and is “the only one who is entitled to negotiate.
“Our problem is there is no counterpart to negotiate with,” he said. Sheetrit dismissed the argument of those who contend that Olmert lacks the political strength to negotiate. “Do you see on the other side people who are really much stronger than Olmert? I don’t,” he said. “If they are really serious about peace, they have to negotiate. … Things will not happen by themselves. We have to push ahead. I support anyone who is trying to push the peace process ahead and that is what the prime minister should do.”
On the other hand, the inability to find a someone on the other side with whom to negotiate, combined with Olmert’s lack of a “moral mandate from the people,” makes his actions nothing more than a “virtual reality,” insisted Gideon Saar, the deputy speaker of the Knesset and the opposition Likud Party’s factional chairman.
He pointed out that since Olmert can’t negotiate with the Palestinians because they are led by the Hamas terrorist organization, Olmert has turned to the Arab world as a substitute.
“I’m not against talking with the Egyptians and the Jordanians and any moderate Arab country, but it is not relevant when you want to make a deal with the Palestinians,” he said. “You must talk to them. And he cannot make peace with those nations without making peace with the Palestinians.”
But Shamir of the Hebrew University pointed out that a key stumbling block in Palestinian-Israeli talks has been the issue of the Palestinian refugees. This is an issue that “requires consent on the part of Lebanon, Syria and Jordan because it involves resettlement of the refugees in their territories,” he explained. “It is impossible to reach such an end of conflict without involving the larger Arab world.”
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had been expected to attend the Olmert-Abdullah meeting this week but did not, possibly because he feared criticism at home, according to Yitzchak Reiter, a political scientist at the Hebrew University. “He has been criticized inside the Palestinian community for meeting with Olmert and getting no results,” he explained. “He has been expecting Olmert to make some gestures, such as removing roadblocks and releasing Palestinian prisoners, something Olmert has shown no willingness to do.”
In his comments in Jordan, Olmert termed the Arab peace initiative “an interesting idea” that he would like to explore.
Reiter pointed out that King Abdullah is “trying to convince Olmert that he doesn’t have to accept all that is written in the resolution and that it is only the beginning of the process of negotiations.” But he added that Israeli politicians “are afraid that once Israel embarks on this initiative,” [the proposal] would be “the starting point for talks and they don’t want to make that statement.”
Thus, the Olmert-Abdullah meeting made a “contribution to the peace process, but more meetings with more parties are needed to arrive at a breakthrough,” Reiter said.