Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s popularity edged up in the polls this week following a hastily called press conference at which he disclosed that he had prostate cancer but intended to attend the Israeli-Palestinian summit meeting later this year in Annapolis, Md., before having surgery to cut out the cancer.
Polls taken immediately after the surprise announcement showed what some described as a sympathy bounce. A Dahaf Research Institute survey found that 41 percent of those surveyed said Olmert was doing a good job — a jump of 6 percent over the previous month. And the TNS Teleseker polling company found that 11 percent of the respondents thought Olmert was the most suitable candidate to serve as prime minister — up from 4.8 percent in June. Likud chairman Benjamin Netanyahu continued to lead the field of candidates, garnering 31 percent of the vote among the 412 persons surveyed.
The slight boost in the polls is “not that big a deal,” insisted Raphi Israeli, a professor of Islamic history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
“An 11 percent rating is even below that of President [George W.] Bush,” he said. “Therefore I wouldn’t read that much into it. It can be ascribed to the natural sympathy one has for the underdog.”
But Gerald Steinberg, a professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University, said there are indications the polls numbers reflected more than a sympathy vote. He said Olmert received plaudits for his handling of the Israeli raid in early September on a Syrian building widely believed connected to the development of a nuclear bomb. And Olmert’s recent trips to Moscow, London and Paris generated “serious statements of support from world leaders.”
“So Israelis may be saying Olmert is more serious than we thought,” Steinberg said. “And he handled the issue of his prostrate cancer in a professional way by not hiding it.”
Both men said the real test of Olmert’s mettle will be how he handles himself at Annapolis.
“There is still some question whether [the summit] will happen, but [Secretary of State Condoleezza] Rice wants to go through with it regardless of warnings that it won’t be useful,” Steinberg said. “If the agreement goes too far, Olmert could lose his government because Shas and [Avigdor] Lieberman would walk out. But that is very unlikely. Olmert has been careful, and if there is a failure [at Annapolis] he will try to set it up so that the Palestinians will be blamed and not Israel.”
Israeli is not as optimistic. He said the popular perception among Israelis is that Olmert “is going there for a sell-out because the Palestinians keep demanding and demanding and are not ready to concede anything. And for Israel to just give and not receive anything in return is a repeat of what happened at Camp David in 2000. It turned out that what Israel had to give then was not enough for [Palestinian President Yasir] Arafat and the whole thing then collapsed. So I don’t see much coming out of the new round of talks. The place is changed but it will be the same scenario.”
Alon Liel, a former director-general of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told the Israel Policy Forum in a conference call last week that Olmert has already publicly stated that he does not expect any agreement to emerge from the Annapolis talks. Therefore, Liel said, the summit should be canceled.
“Why waste the money?” he asked. “It would be better not to go because creating such an event creates expectations. People don’t understand the chances of an achievement there are so slim.”
Ephraim Sneh, a former Israeli defense minister who was on the same conference call, said the Annapolis summit should not be the place to start negotiations but rather the setting where “both parties can come with a basic formula or principles of agreement and have them receive international endorsement.”
Asked if Olmert had the political clout to be able to develop the principles for an agreement, Sneh replied: “The question is how many members of the Knesset would vote for an initial understanding with the Palestinians. He has more than the 61 votes he needs. … And when we start speaking with the Palestinians, there is a solid majority for a two-state solution. If somebody wants to wait for stronger leaders on both sides, I don’t know who would be stronger. The question is whether to put an end to the conflict or to find a pretext to continue it. What are we going to do — have another 100 years of conflict?”
“There is a Palestinian leadership eager [for an agreement] and a majority in the Knesset,” Sneh added. “There is also international support for it. There is every reason for an agreement. Do we seize the opportunity? I am in favor of doing what is necessary.”
But Liel argued that an agreement with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is meaningless unless Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, is also included.
“I’m not saying we should start to engage Hamas in the process, but we should encourage the beginning of a dialogue between [Abbas’] Fatah and Hamas,” Liel said. “A year ago they were talking to each other and sitting in the same government.”
Sneh replied that it is a “dream to think they can find consensus” and that Israel has “no other choice but to strike a deal with the moderates and to contain Hamas.”
Meanwhile, the U.S. has reportedly applied more pressure on Israel to fulfill its commitment to dismantle illegal outposts in the West Bank. Israeli said the U.S. action is designed to show the Arab world that the steps it is taking against Iran should not be seen as a war against Islam.
“America wants to pose as a balanced power that is not completely biased for Israel,” he said. “So it is pressuring Israel to satisfy Arabs from Morocco to the Gulf who are supposedly allies of the U.S. That is the balance they want and I think they are mistaken. But at the end of a term a president will do all types of desperate things. … He is pressuring to prepare the ground to do something drastic in Iran. If he decides not to act, things will calm down. To be operational, something must happen within the next six months. After that, the heat of the elections will be so high that the president would not venture [military action].”
Asked if there was any other alternative, Israeli said: “He tried unilateral economic sanctions a week ago without waiting for the U.N. What remains after that is the use of force. I don’t see much other than that.”
But Steinberg said he would not rule out an “October surprise” and believes Bush would act until he vacates the Oval Office.
“The Iranians have to be concerned he would act on his last day in office,” he said. “His concern is to make sure the Iranians don’t get nuclear weapons and about his place in history. And an October surprise before the election, if done properly, would boost the Republican candidate. I wouldn’t be the reason for doing it, but it would be a mistake to say he would not act.”