The Sound of Silence: Olmert’s Strategy

Dateline Jerusalem

By Gershom Gorenberg

Published March 09, 2007, issue of March 09, 2007.
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Ehud Olmert won’t talk. Reduced to its essence, that was State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss’s angry complaint to a Knesset panel Tuesday. The ex-judge was speaking at a hearing devoted to his investigation of how the government handled, or mishandled, the home front during last summer’s war in Lebanon. One reason that the confrontation between Olmert and the comptroller could seize Israel’s attention so completely early this week is that not talking has become the prime minister’s key tactic in foreign affairs as well. With diplomacy at a standstill, there is little to divert the public from the latest inquiry into corruption or the war.

Originally, Lindenstrauss intended to present an interim report on the home front to the Knesset State Control Committee at Tuesday’s hearing. The issue is explosive, given accusations that the government abandoned civilians who sat in shelters, or fled southward, while Hezbollah missiles rained on northern Israel. At the last moment, the controller retreated under legal pressure from the army, which said it received his draft too late to respond to criticisms.

As for Olmert, he has yet to provide any input into the report, and he reacted with fury to the threat to publicize it. At the hearing, Lindenstrauss explained that he had invited the prime minister — like other officials — to testify personally. Olmert alone asked to respond to the questions in writing. “I regret to tell you… that to this day, as I appear before you, we have yet to receive the answers,” Lindenstrauss said.

Beforehand, Olmert sent a letter to Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik suggesting that the comptroller simply wanted to upstage the upcoming Winograd Commission report on the war in Lebanon. Olmert’s office said he would provide answers to Lindenstrauss by the end of March. Commentators suggested that Olmert hoped the fight would discredit the comptroller’s report when it does appear, reducing the political fallout from the war.

Yet that won’t solve the deeper problem that Olmert has faced since the war. The attacks from both Lebanon and Gaza erased support for his policy of “convergence” — unilateral withdrawal from much of the West Bank. He has yet to find an alternative, beyond tying himself more closely to President Bush and avoiding any new diplomatic initiatives.

So he has consistently rejected any peace talks with Syria. Olmert’s position was underlined by the report in January that unofficial, back-channel talks took place till last year between a Syrian representative and Alon Liel, former director general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry. The sides had put together a “nonpaper” — an unsigned outline of a peace agreement that included Israel giving up the Golan, and Syria ending support for Hezbollah and Hamas.

When Syria asked last summer to switch to direct talks between officials, Israel said no, in part due to American opposition. Since then, nothing has been done to revive the proposed deal. Late last month — according to Israeli leaks — Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told Israeli officials that the United States opposed even exploratory contacts to see if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is interested in peace.

Of course, trading the Golan for peace would mean a major political gamble for Olmert. Citing Uncle Sam’s objections has been a convenient way to avoid that wager. But standstill also has a price, raising the question of what goals Olmert has as leader outside of remaining in office.

On the other hand, Olmert met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in December and again last month. Another meeting is expected soon, before the Arab League summit meeting late this month in Riyadh. By all reports, though, nothing that could be called dialogue has occurred so far.

The two leaders have entirely different agendas. Abbas insists that talks aim at a final-status peace agreement, says Bar-Ilan University’s Menachem Klein, an expert on Palestinian politics and peace negotiations. Olmert, with White House backing, insists on beginning with phase one of the American-backed road map peace plan — putting off final status indefinitely. Abbas told Arab papers following the last meeting that he nearly walked out after he and Olmert shouted at each other over the Fatah-Hamas agreement on a unity government.

The Arab summit is likely to add to Olmert’s diplomatic dilemmas. Arab leaders are expected to re-ratify the 2002 Saudi initiative, which calls for full peace with Israel, in return for an Israeli pullback to the pre-1967 borders. In a television interview last week, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni singled out a clause in the original initiative on the Palestinian refugees as violating “an absolute Israeli red line.” Israel sees the clause as demanding the refugees’ right to return to Israel proper.

But the new Palestinian government, Klein argues, is likely to affirm the initiative. If it does, some European countries will probably accept that it has met international demands for recognizing Israel, and that the boycott of the P.A. should end. Diplomatic pressure on Olmert to negotiate with the new Palestinian government will increase. With Bush’s backing, and indeed with domestic support, Olmert can be expected to say no. But his lack of a diplomatic alternative of his own, the vacuum of policy goals, will be even more glaring.

Unwilling to talk to Syria, unable to counter the Saudis or engage the Palestinians, Olmert finds himself virtually a lame duck less than a year into his term. Without a plan for the future, he is more vulnerable to inquiries into his past actions. As a style of governing, stonewalling is proving to have a high cost.

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