Legacy-Building Time For Olmert


With the release this week of a detailed Palestinian peace proposal dealing with borders, refugees and security, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is seen by observers as trying to burnish his tarred legacy.

“He wants to put his fingerprints on the map of the Middle East to show he did something in addition to all of the corruption he is connected with,” said Mordechai Kedar of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.

He added that Olmert, who has pledged to resign once the winner of next month’s Kadima Party assembles a new government, “wants to show that he has some kind of agenda; a vision of the future. … He’s a dying horse who wants to leave some tracks so that after
he goes everyone has to agree to what he agreed upon with the Palestinians.”
The proposal—which would be a “shelf agreement” that would only be implemented when conditions were right—calls for the annexation of West Bank settlement blocs in exchange for land in the Negev; a connection between the West Bank and Gaza Strip; a demilitarized Palestinian state, and the resettlement of the majority of Palestinian refugees in that state.

Yoel Hasson, chairman of Kadima’s coalition in the Knessset, said here Tuesday that he was unaware the peace proposal had been published. After an address to a business group at 5W Public Relations, Hasson said Olmert “probably wanted to see the fruits of his [peace] efforts” publicized.

But he added that before any agreement is completed, “I think they should wait to see what the political map of Israel will look like after the election in Kadima. … This is a time when people can continue [peace] talks, but I don’t think anything serious will come from it. I’m not so sure we can even achieve a shelf agreement” by the end of the year.

Yossi Alpher, a political analyst and co-editor of the Israeli-Palestinian Web site bitterlemons.org, said the proposal appeared to be a one-sided Israeli presentation after months of Israeli-Palestinian talks and that it may have been leaked as a “trial balloon” to gauge Israeli and Palestinian response.

“It may be the basis for future negotiations but we have no indication of the gap” between the two sides on the key issues, he said.

Gershon Baskin, co-CEO of the Israel-Palestine Center for Research and Information in Jerusalem, wrote that although the proposal specifically did not deal with Jerusalem’s status because of internal domestic politics, “it is quite clear to me that the negotiators have been discussing Jerusalem.”

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is expected to visit Israel next week and to again press both sides to publish the agreements reached to date. Haaretz, the Israeli newspaper that first published the proposal, said Olmert is against that because it could serve as a point of reference in future negotiations. Baskin said such a document could “expose the fact that Jerusalem has also been discussed.”

He went on to write that “significant progress has been made … [and] an agreement is possible; the gaps have been significantly narrowed. There is now a need for a credible third party mediator to step in with bridging proposals to close the deal ….”

Alpher said that although Baskin has some Israeli and Palestinian contacts, he is a “hardcore optimist.” He said he has tried in the past and failed to substantiate Baskin’s belief that a peace agreement is possible. He also questioned why Olmert or his aides would release the proposal now since any agreement would reflect well on Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, the frontrunner in the Kadima primary with whom Olmert does not get along.

Another possibility, said Alpher, is that Olmert will try to prevent the new Kadima leader from forming a new government, thereby keeping him in office until the next general election in March.

“Olmert is a cool character and this would give him lots of time to reach an agreement with the Palestinians and maybe even Syria,” he said.

Gerald Steinberg, chairman of the Political Studies Department at Bar-Ilan University, said he too would not count Olmert out. He noted that on the eve of Rice’s visit it “makes sense to want to show progress” in the peace talks.

“Even the Palestinian statement [following the proposal’s release] that Israel hasn’t given enough shows progress,” he said. “Since Olmert has been prime minister he has always created options and then decided what to do. He has created another option by saying here is a [peace] plan.”

Should Livni win the party primary and assemble a coalition government, she could devote her attention as prime minister to completing the peace deal so she would have something to show in the next general election. She is expected to run against Ehud Barak of the Labor Party and rightwing Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu.

Steinberg said Barak would run as Mr. Security and “her only card would be that Barak tried and failed to negotiate a peace treaty and that she negotiated one successfully.” But he cautioned that even if a treaty is hammered out, the “realities on the ground” don’t bode well for implementation any time soon.