It’s hard to imagine a less likely pair of statesmen to carry off a sensitive, historic peace negotiation than Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas, respective leaders of Israel and the Palestinian Authority. For months, skeptical observers on both sides have watched with mixed bemusement and contempt as the two men, both weak leaders with little popular support, have conducted their on-again, off-again peace chats. The general assumption has been that neither partner aims for anything more than the appearance of movement, to keep critics at bay and stave off political oblivion. But it’s time to take a second look. The talks appear to be getting serious. You can tell, because the domestic opposition on both sides is getting serious.
When the talks began last spring, the two sides seemed hopelessly far apart, unable to agree even on the agenda. Olmert’s aides said the discussions would focus on broad principles of Palestinian nationhood, without touching sensitive “end-game” issues such as borders and Jerusalem. Palestinian officials insisted that Abbas would settle for nothing less than a full-court press toward a final agreement, aiming for statehood, division of Jerusalem and the return of the Palestinian refugees.
During the course of the summer, however, unconfirmed reports from both sides began to indicate that the positions were moving closer. Olmert was supposedly examining maps that would give the Palestinians most of the West Bank, keeping only the major settlement blocs for Israel and offering the Palestinians an equivalent amount of Israeli land in exchange. Abbas, for his part, was supposedly ready to give up the notion of Palestinian refugees returning to what is now Israel. Both sides were considering a plan to share Jerusalem, leaving Israel with less than the whole city and the Palestinians with less than the entire eastern half. A few weeks ago, one of Olmert’s closest aides, Haim Ramon, began circulating a map detailing — “without Olmert’s authorization,” of course — what he described as a permanent border between Israel and Palestine. This week, Abbas took off for Saudi Arabia, reportedly aiming to line up Saudi support for whatever deal the two sides finalize.
To be sure, we’ve seen all this before — from Oslo and the White House handshake in 1993 to the Camp David disaster in 2000. Each previous attempt failed, and left the populations on both sides wearier and more cynical than before. This latest round of talks has elicited barely a yawn from the Israeli press and public. With Olmert at record lows in popular support and Abbas having lost Gaza to Hamas, neither seemed in a position to lead his people anywhere controversial. A poll released last week in the Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot found just 13% of Israelis expressing any confidence in the peace process.
Over the past week, however, things have begun to heat up — judging, at least, by the increasingly furious response of the opposition. Several ranking members of Olmert’s Kadima party have threatened to bolt if the talks go much further — including former Laborite Shai Hermesh, whose Negev kibbutz is rumored to be part of a proposed land swap. Two of Olmert’s key coalition partners, Shas and Yisrael BeIteinu, are threatening to bolt, depriving Olmert of his Knesset majority, over rumors that the prime minister might cede control of the Temple Mount.
On the Palestinian side, Hamas is pressuring Abbas to renew his unity government with it, presumably realizing that this would sink the peace talks. Even more threatening is the ever-more deadly rocket fire from Gaza, which is testing Israel’s restraint and could torpedo the peace talks entirely.
For all that, the talks continue, because they must. In the short run, both Abbas and Olmert are under pressure from the Bush administration, which has called a Middle East peace conference for November in Washington and expects results. Bush badly wants an Israeli-Palestinian breakthrough to adorn his legacy, and it’s up to Olmert and Abbas to deliver it.
In the longer run, the Middle East needs a deal. Moderate Arab states, led by Saudi Arabia and Egypt, are deeply alarmed by the destabilizing influence of Iran in the region. They are desperate to lower the flames of anti-Western radicalism on the Arab street. No less important, they want to work with Israel, not against it, in a moderate, pro-Western coalition that isolates Iran and restrains Syria. Just this week, the Arab moderates turned their backs on Syria when it complained about an Israeli overflight. It was a rare show of defiance against the region’s radicals. But it only emphasizes the moderates’ sense of urgency. If they are to survive in the distant future, they believe, they need an Israeli-Palestinian deal.
Olmert has his own reasons to want a deal that works. Beyond his own political future, he has to worry about the fortunes of Israel itself. The nation has been in a deep funk since the Lebanon war last year, deepened by the ongoing rocket fire from Gaza. Last week’s Yediot Aharonot poll found that while 84% of Israelis are proud to be Israeli and 86% consider Israel a good place to live, a full 72% consider their country’s security situation to be “terrible,” and 25% aren’t even certain the Jewish state can survive over time. Even more than Olmert needs a peace deal, Israel needs one, and Olmert appears determined to achieve it. There won’t be many more chances like this one. Let us pray that he succeeds, and may this be the year of peace.