Washington — Israeli, Palestinian and American negotiators meeting in Washington on July 30 saw what little momentum their peace talks had gathered dissipate with a surprise announcement by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that he soon would resign.
Olmert’s announcement that he would step down as soon as his party chooses a new leader is expected to derail the trilateral peace talks, which have been described by American and Israeli officials as a last-ditch effort to reach a deal on the creation of a Palestinian state before the Bush administration leaves office in January 2009.
“The peace process doesn’t have to go on hold, but I’d be very surprised if you could finalize anything in this period, because there is no one there to finalize,” said Edward Walker, a former American ambassador to Israel.
In a July 30 speech, given at his Jerusalem residence and carried live by Israeli television networks, Olmert said he would not run in the Kadima party primaries scheduled for September 17 and would hand in his resignation once a new leader is chosen. The two frontrunners in the Kadima primaries are Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who participated in the trilateral peace talks in Washington, and Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz.
In his speech, Olmert pledged to continue working for a peace accord “as long as I am in my position,” but even before announcing his planned resignation the prime minister publicly professed little faith in the possibility of reaching a peace accord this year with the Palestinians.
Barely any progress was made toward an agreement in the July 30 meeting in Washington among Livni, former Palestinian prime minister Ahmed Qurei and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. According to diplomatic sources, after the two-hour meeting a joint Israeli-Palestinian document remained beyond reach.
Livni, Olmert’s chief political rival and the frontrunner for party leadership, has encountered skepticism for months from the prime minister’s office about a breakthrough in peace talks with the Palestinians. While Livni believes in the prospects of achieving a final-status deal before the Bush administration leaves office, Olmert has publicly stated that the goal is unattainable. On July 29, as Livni headed to the peace talks in Washington, Olmert told the Knesset that he does not believe an agreement could be reached this year because of the complexity of the Jerusalem issue.
The foreign minister has been meeting regularly with Qurei since the Bush administration convened a peace summit in November 2007 in Annapolis, Md. While the Livni-Qurei talks are veiled in secrecy, officials close to the Israeli foreign minister said the negotiations have broached issues untouched in the past and that extensive understandings have been reached.
Livni’s fellow negotiators have also faced substantial skepticism within their own governments. While Rice’s State Department is pushing for an agreement, the White House appears to have all but abandoned the goal of achieving an accord this year.
The divide became apparent July 23, when Deputy National Security Advisor Elliott Abrams met with Jewish communal leaders in New York. In a closed-door meeting, Abrams, who oversees Middle East affairs for the White House, cast skepticism on the Livni-Qurei peace talks. According to participants in the meeting, Abrams said that even if any agreement is reached in these talks, it will be between only Livni and Qurei, not between the Israeli and Palestinian governments.
The participants added that Abrams went on to discount the prospect of Olmert leading a drive to sign a final-status agreement.
“He doesn’t have the political weight to sell such an agreement to the Israeli public,” Abrams said, according to one of the participants.
Abrams could not be reached for comment.
Several days after Abrams raised doubts about the chances of reaching a final-status deal, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino also sought to lower expectations surrounding the peace talks.
“We’ve always said that we wouldn’t be able to get a final peace deal in terms of everything being resolved,” Perino said in a July 28 press briefing. America’s goal, she added, is to “outline all the steps that they would have to take to move forward.”
Among Palestinians, skepticism has also been rampant. While the government led by President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad is supportive of attempts to reach a final-status agreement by the year’s end, the main focus at the moment is on short-term agreements that can change life on the ground.
“Public trust in the peace process is very low” said Ghaith al-Omari, a former adviser to Abbas. Al-Omari, who now serves as director of advocacy for the American Task Force on Palestine, said that the Palestinian public does not believe reports of progress in the talks because they clash with the reality on the ground.
“It’s unfortunate that Condi Rice keeps on being so ideological instead of focusing on issues on the ground, such as the settlements,” al-Omari said.
While Rice continues to endorse and actively support the final-status talks between Livni and Qurei, State Department officials are becoming increasingly critical of Israel’s action regarding the short-term issues detailed in the roadmap peace plan.
In closed-door meetings, according to individuals who attended, James Cunningham, the incoming American ambassador to Israel, has voiced frustration with Israel’s lack of progress on issues related to a settlement freeze, the removal of roadblocks and the strengthening the Palestinian Authority. And the American consul general in Jerusalem, Jacob Walles, has said that Israel has done less than the Palestinians in terms of adhering to the roadmap commitments, according to Israeli and American sources.
In an attempt to resolve ongoing disputes with the Bush administration over Palestinian freedom of movement and to give free access to Palestinian areas under Israeli military control, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak agreed to a request put forward July 29 by Rice to enter into talks on security arrangements in the Palestinian territories. After his meeting with Rice, Barak told reporters that he would begin “intensive dialogue” with James Jones, the administration’s special envoy to the region.
At the same time, Barak made clear that he, too, has doubts about the chances of achieving an accord before the Bush administration leaves office.
“It’s like in tango,” Barak said in Washington on July 29. “It takes two.”
Nathan Guttman staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Ha’aretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Contact Nathan at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter @nathanguttman