Haifa, Israel — During the majority of his political career in the Likud party, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was known as a hawk. After he joined the Kadima party, Olmert was said to be increasingly dovish. Today, he is referred to with a third avian metaphor: a lame duck.
It has already been 12 weeks since Olmert announced that he would step down as prime minister, but it appears that his term as lame duck will stretch on even longer, due to Tzipi Livni’s announcement that she would call for a general election after failing to form a coalition government. With the current schedule, it appears that the election will happen no sooner than February 2009.
Despite pressure to step down before then, Olmert has announced that he will exercise his constitutional right to stay on until the victors in the general elections form their coalition, which could be as late as mid-March. In the meantime, the country will be led by a premier whose ability to govern is questioned by left and right alike.
Olmert’s status comes at a particularly inopportune moment, given what many describe as a narrowing window for signing a peace agreement with the Palestinians. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is scheduled to leave his post in January, after which uncertainty looms. According to analysts, Olmert’s status may mean that a final chance to reach a settlement will be lost.
“These weeks are a last chance for reaching an agreement with Abbas, but because of Olmert’s weakness, this is unlikely to happen,” said Eran Shayshon, who is a senior analyst at the Reut Institute, a Tel Aviv think tank that advises the government.
Olmert has defended himself against criticism that he is not in full control of the government.
“The sense of a pre-election stalemate is misleading,” he told the Knesset on October 26. “There are decisions to be made and a nation to run. Decisions will be made, and the country will continue to be run.”
In a controversial interview at the end of September, Olmert was criticial of the Israeli political establishment’s resistance to signing a peace deal with the Palestinians. In the interview, he said that an agreement was “very close,” giving rise to speculation about his intentions during his final weeks in office.
But his detractors on both the left and right question his determination to push ahead with negotiations. Their criticism has been applied to Olmert’s Turkish-brokered negotiations with Syria over the Golan Heights, as well as to talks with the P.A.
Members of Likud, which is polling a close second to Kadima, are furious. The party’s lawmakers have been privately investigating whether the next government will be bound by an Olmert agreement.
“This is a totally absurd situation. Olmert is irrelevant, but all of a sudden he is back in the picture,” Likud spokeswoman Sharona Mazalyan told the Forward. “He should not continue with peace negotiations, as he does not have a mandate.”
And while the Labor Party is not averse to meeting with the Palestinians, the party is firm that on “major questions,” Olmert “does not have the Knesset’s mandate,” according to Labor spokesman Lior Rotbart.
Even members of Olmert’s own party have spoken out against him. Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit told Israel Radio that negotiations “cannot advance” during the election period.
Whether these warnings will be necessary is unclear, given the fact that the Palestinians already appear to be quietly turning their backs on Olmert. Only a day after elections were announced, the P.A. reportedly canceled a meeting between Abbas and Olmert. As a P.A. official told the Forward, the formal position is that negotiations continue regardless of internal politics in Israel. Palestinian sources speaking off the record, however, give a different story.
Ali Jarbawi, political science professor at the Palestinian Birzeit University, told the Forward, “The Palestinian Authority will negotiate with whoever is in office, as it wants to keep the file open, but I don’t think you will find anyone in the Palestinian Authority who will take Olmert seriously now.”
If, as Jarbawi predicts, “the peace process is going to be on hold,” the timing for the pause could prove significant. Hamas is insisting that Abbas step down in January, at the end of his term. If he does, his successor is almost certain to be less moderate and less open to peace negotiations. Abbas is hoping to hold off on ending his term. He has cited a clause in the constitution saying that presidential and parliamentary elections must be held at the same time, with an eye toward extending his term to 2010.
Some predict that if a power struggle between the Fatah-led P.A. and Hamas ensues in the West Bank, by then the time for a peace deal will have passed.
“If the Hamas challenge to Abbas comes to a head, all bets could be off and we could see the P.A. go completely under,” said Jonathan Rynhold, research associate at Bar-Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.
According to Shayshon, most Palestinian possibilities spell the loss of a negotiating partner for Israel. If Abbas steps down, Israel will lose someone who is “considered part of a negotiating dream team.” If he stays, he will rule, but “with a lack of legitimacy.”
Shayshon added that America’s presidential election means President Bush, who expressed hope that an agreement would be reached before year’s end, is in no position to help overcome the problems and push the process forward.
“The timing means that all official players are in a state of transition,” Shayshon said.
Uri Savir, one of the architects of the Oslo process, is now president of the Peres Center for Peace. He is concerned not only that the peace process stalled because of transition, but also that the future of the process has come to “depend on the election results in three countries.”
Basem Ezbidi, a researcher at the Ramallah-based Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, predicts that the failure to reach agreement will prove to be self-perpetuating. Ezbidi expects that if Abbas leaves office without an agreement, support for his approach will have seriously weakened by the time the next Israeli government is in place.
“Abbas is considered a non-achiever and is seen as a liability — not able to let the Palestinians live in peace and not able to let them take action,” Ezbidi said.