When Ehud Olmert stepped outside the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem and kissed Mahmoud Abbas on both cheeks Saturday evening, he was offering the Palestinian leader a political embrace. Regard it as the embrace of two men flailing in stormy waters — but which man was drowning, which was rescuing him and did the rescue stand a chance of success?
The meeting — long expected, oft postponed and arranged in secrecy — was the first between the two since Olmert became prime minister. Strikingly, Olmert made a point of treating Abbas as a head of state. A red, green, black and white flag waved next to the blue-and-white Israeli one in the parking lot of Olmert’s residence — the first time the Palestinian banner has been displayed at an Israeli institution. Olmert greet Abbas as “Mr. President” — dropping the Israeli insistence on the lesser title “chairman” for the head of the Palestinian Authority.
The symbols were aimed at announcing that Olmert regards Abbas as a negotiating partner. “The prime minister stated very clearly that he is reaching out to those in the Palestinian Authority who support a two-state solution and achieving [it] through dialogue,” Olmert spokeswoman Miri Eisin told the Forward this week. “We are trying… to show the Palestinian people that there are more benefits to non-violence.” Since the start of the second intifada in 2000, the question of “is there a partner” on the Palestinian side has divided Israeli politics. Ariel Sharon’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, and Olmert’s own proposal for a unilateral pullout from parts of the West Bank, presumed a lack of anyone to talk to on the Palestinian side. Now Olmert has changed direction.
The Saturday night meeting focused on limited steps: Olmert agreed to transfer $100 million in tax funds that Israel has been withholding since a Hamas-led government, at odds with Abbas, took over last March in the Palestinian Authority. The cash is to be channeled through Abbas’s office or given directly to hospitals as humanitarian aid, bypassing the Hamas government. Olmert also agreed to reduce the number of roadblocks in the West Bank, easing living conditions for Palestinians, and to weigh the release a few dozen Palestinian prisoners in honor of the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha this weekend. Both moves sparked criticism in the Israeli military. Top officers said removing roadblocks would make it harder to prevent terror attacks. Until now, Israel has refused to free any prisoners until Hamas frees abducted Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.
Beyond those moves, Eisin said, Olmert and Abbas agreed to resuscitate joint committees on returning security control in Palestinian cities to Palestinian forces. The committees stopped functioning when the hardline Islamic Hamas government was formed. Now only the Presidential Guard, directly responsible to Abbas, will be involved in the process — bypassing the P.A. Interior Ministry, which answers to Hamas. The overall goal, Eisin indicated, is to move forward on first and second stages of the American-backed road map — which means stopping violence and establishing a Palestinian state with interim borders.
At first glance, those moves constitute an Israeli rescue effort for Abbas. Since the Hamas victory in the Palestinian legislative elections last January, Abbas has been trying desperately to reassert his authority as president, to shore up his Fatah movement and to regain support for achieving Palestinian independence through diplomacy. Negotiations with Hamas on a unity government that would implicitly recognize Israel have dragged on without results.
Abbas’s latest gambit, a threat to hold new legislative and presidential elections, sparked street fighting between Fatah and Hamas. The fragile ceasefire between the two movements, many Palestinians believe, won’t last past Eid al-Adha. Actually holding elections would also be a dangerous gamble: A mid-December survey by the respected Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah found that in a presidential race against Ismail Haniyeh — now the Hamas prime minister — Abbas would get 46%, Haniyeh 45%. Since the margin of error was 3%, that result is a toss-up. In theory, renewed high-level diplomacy could bolster support for Abbas. Predictably, that approach gets withering criticism on the Israeli right. “Before the disengagement, a year and a half ago, Olmert and Sharon told us Abu Mazen was not a partner,” Likud Knesset member Yuval Steinitz said this week, referring to Abbas by his nom de guerre. “What changed Olmert’s mind? Did [Abu Mazen] do something positive?”
Steinitz, an ally of Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, said that renewing a diplomatic process today would be “fruitless.” Concessions to Abbas only helped Hamas, he argued, adding that any distinction between the Palestinian president and the Hamas-dominated legislature was “an insult to the intelligence.” Instead of negotiating, Steinitz argued, Israel should mount a massive ground operation in Gaza to end rocket fire against Israel. For the West Bank, he proposed abolishing the P.A. and establishing limited municipal autonomy in Palestinian cities. The comments indicate how wide a gap has opened between the Likud and Olmert, who spent his career in that party until bolting with Sharon last winter to create the centrist Kadima.
Still, Steinitz is right that Olmert has shifted his stance toward Abbas. One explanation is that the prime minister has been under international pressure to talk to the Palestinian leader. Another is that Olmert himself is having a hard time keeping his head above the water.
As the unexpected heir to Kadima after Sharon’s stroke, Olmert ran for prime minister on a platform of unilateral withdrawal, providing an unusually clear program to compensate for weak personal appeal. He won — but last summer’s two-front war in Lebanon and Gaza shattered public confidence both in his leadership and in his program. Most Israelis deduced that unilateral pullouts could not bring security. A poll last week by the Dahaf Institute and the daily Yediot Aharonot showed that in a three-way race between Olmert and ex-prime ministers Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, Olmert would come in a poor third. (Netanyahu came in first.) Since both Netanyahu and Barak lost reelection bids by landslides, it’s a particularly poor showing for Olmert.
“In the aftermath of Lebanese conflict,” spokeswoman Eisin said this week, choosing her words slowly and cautiously, “the prime minister is of the understanding that… it is worthwhile to do the utmost to arrive at a resolution [of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict] by agreement.” Apparent translation: To revive his promise of ending Israeli rule over the Palestinians, Olmert is now ready to take another step leftward and negotiate. To do that, he needs to show he has someone to talk to.
But Olmert’s problems run deeper. When Olmert found himself as prime minister, “even he was surprised,” said Yoram Meital, head of the Chaim Herzog Center for Middle East Studies and Diplomacy at Ben-Gurion University. “Olmert was a polished politician, but had absolutely no experience in matters of state,” lacking even the team of advisers a prime ministerial candidate would normally have. He may still be improvising. The army objections to the concessions he offered Abbas suggest he had not prepared the meeting in coordination with the military.
Olmert dropped his unilateral plan, Meital said, only when public opinion polls turned against it. Now, said Meital, Olmert’s “rescue and emergency forces” are trying to save Abbas. But the two leaders have drastically different expectations. Olmert wants to discuss interim arrangements. Abbas’s promise to his own public is talks on the final-status accord — stage three in the road map.
“When Abu Mazen talks only about final status, every Israeli would respond, ‘I have a problem, they’re shooting Qassam rockets at me,’” Meital stressed. To gain Israeli confidence, Abbas needs “to talk about how to stop the violence on the ground right now.”
So to help Abbas, Olmert needs to present a clear vision of the future, the final shape of peace. To help Olmert, Abbas needs to speak more clearly about the present. The weeks ahead will show whether the two men flailing in the political waters have the strength to rescue each other — and themselves.