Thursday, 30 November 2006

Ideology yields to new vision in Olmert's offer to Palestinians

Thursday, November 30, 2006
Page A - 15

Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service

Jerusalem -- Standing by the grave of Israel's famously pragmatic founding prime minister, Israeli leader Ehud Olmert set out a new vision of Israeli policy, abandoning ideology in favor of an attempt at peacemaking that David Ben-Gurion himself might have drafted -- peace, statehood and prosperity for the Palestinians in return for an end to violence.

In his speech Monday, Olmert performed an abrupt about-turn on the question of releasing Palestinian prisoners, endorsing a mass prisoner swap in return for the freedom of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. He pulled back Israeli troops from Gaza, allowing a fragile cease-fire to take effect, and ordered the army to hold its fire even when Palestinian rockets continued slamming into southern Israel.

"This is a significant opening that President George W. Bush should pounce on when he visits the Middle East this week, so that the Palestinian-Israeli diplomatic flirting can be expanded into serious negotiations," said commentator Rami G. Khouri.

The Palestinian response to Olmert's overtures was predictably skeptical, with Hamas at first dismissing the speech as a "conspiracy." But Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas of the rival Fatah party welcomed the speech, describing it as "useful."

Abbas' chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat, said it shows the Israeli prime minister now has confidence that negotiations with the Palestinians can be fruitful. "I believe Mr. Olmert knows he has a partner, and that is President Abbas. He knows that to achieve peace and security for all, we need to shoot for the endgame." Reinforcing the notion of Olmert and Abbas as potential negotiating partners, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will meet, separately, with both of them today.

Perhaps the most interesting Palestinian comment this week came from Khaled Mashaal, the hard-line Hamas political leader, who spoke on Sunday about establishing a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza instead of the policy set out in the Hamas charter -- that Israel must be completely destroyed.

"When the leaders of Israel and Hamas in the same weekend offer each other long-term peace deals, you just know in your bones that we are passing through a potentially historic moment," said Khouri, executive editor of the Beirut-based Daily Star.

Emad Gad, senior researcher on Israel at the al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, said he believes Hamas will tell its supporters a state limited to the West Bank and Gaza would be only a step toward liberating land inside Israel. "But I think if they accept this solution, it will be the permanent solution," Gad said. "I think they will have this article (calling for Israel's destruction) in their charter for 10 years -- but after that, this article will be finished."

By endorsing a prisoner release and refraining from retaliating for sporadic rocket attacks even after Israel's cease-fire went into effect on Sunday, Olmert was effectively negotiating -- albeit indirectly -- with the hated militants of Hamas, a high-risk strategy.

The new approach is in stark contrast to Israel's decision to attack the Gaza Strip after Shalit's capture on June 25, and the subsequent decision to attack Lebanon after Hezbollah killed eight Israeli soldiers and captured two more in a cross-border ambush on July 12. In both cases, Israel demanded the unconditional release of its soldiers and vowed it would not negotiate with their captors or release prisoners in exchange for their freedom. All three soldiers are still being held.

"The prime minister said during this last Lebanese war that releasing terrorists is just a prize to the terrorist groups, and he was right," said Avi Bachrach, whose son Ohad was killed by Palestinian militants near Jericho 11 years ago. "That's why we started a war. How can he now look into the eyes of all of the parents who lost children in the war and to the families who have injured soldiers and say that it was all in vain?"

Israeli commentators are divided over the reasons behind Olmert's sudden change of heart. Jerusalem Post columnist Anshel Pfeffer wrote that Olmert is desperately trying to salvage his government, whose popularity is sinking fast in the polls.

"He is leading a discredited administration that is perceived by a wide majority as having dismally failed in the Lebanon war and not done anything right since," said Pfeffer.

Gershon Baskin, co-director of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information, said the government was forced to abandon the idea of a unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank -- its main pledge during the last election campaign -- after the summer's bruising war against Hezbollah.

"Since the war in Lebanon this summer, it has been quite clear that Olmert's government lacks a political agenda," said Baskin. "Governments without an agenda and without a political horizon that provides hope to the people do not survive for very long. Olmert had continued to hope that he could revive his plan for unilateral withdrawal from most of the West Bank, but that has grown increasingly unpopular in Israel. Recognizing the need for a new agenda, Olmert understood that he could not present anything new without a calming of the violence, and he has finally understood that a cease-fire must be bilateral."

With his popularity plummeting in the wake of the summer's war in Lebanon, which many Israelis regard as an embarrassing failure, Olmert's abandonment of ideology could be the biggest step toward peace in a decade. A number of forces have coalesced to make this a good time for movement where none was possible before.

Hamas has accepted that it cannot continue to govern the Palestinian Authority, despite its landslide victory in the parliamentary elections in January. Its refusal to abide by past agreements with Israel, its open commitment to continued violence and its refusal ever to negotiate peace triggered an international boycott, which has left the government bankrupt and more than a million Palestinians without a regular income.

Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh has agreed to resign his post, and Hamas has agreed in principle to participate in a coalition government that would be headed by a nonpolitical figure. On-and-off talks between Hamas and Fatah to form a unity government are unlikely to be resolved soon. But Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, also heads the Palestine Liberation Organization, which recognized the Jewish state in 1993 -- making him the only Palestinian empowered to negotiate with Israel. It's an arrangement that suits Hamas, which still does not want to be directly involved in peace talks, and also suits the Israelis, who will not talk to Hamas unless its leaders explicitly renounce violence and recognize Israel.

In his speech on Monday, Olmert offered a mass release of Palestinian prisoners in return for Shalit's return. The prime minister said that if the Palestinians form a new government willing to negotiate, he will start peace talks aimed at dismantling settlements and withdrawing Israeli forces from large parts of the West Bank in order to create "an independent and viable Palestinian state ... with full sovereignty and defined borders.

"We, the state of Israel, will agree to the evacuation of many territories and the settlements that we built there. This is extremely difficult for us, like the splitting of the Red Sea. We will do it for real peace," he said.

Palestinian commentators tried to understand what effect Olmert's offer would have on their own political landscape. Analyst Muhammad Hawwash, writing in the new English-language Palestine Times, said Olmert stopped short of "launching a political initiative," but placed just enough on the table to give the cease-fire a chance. He said it could help Palestinian leaders persuade the militant factions to stop attacking Israel -- if only to stop military reprisals -- and release desperately needed funds to pay the salaries of Palestinian government workers.

"The cease-fire might in fact survive, since several parties need it," wrote Hawwash. "Hamas wants to demonstrate that it controls the firepower, and the Palestinian president wants to maneuver Palestinian political life around ... change, adaptation and the unknown."

Anticipated changes in U.S. Middle East policy may indeed have been preying on Olmert's mind. Since the Democratic victory in the midterm elections and leaks from the report on Iraq by the Iraq Study Group, Israeli leaders have been concerned that the Bush administration will temper its backing for Israel's tough approach with overtures to the Arab world -- including Syria, which sponsors Hezbollah, Hamas and other Palestinian extremists. Bush reportedly is being advised by other Middle Eastern leaders to resume efforts to solve the Israeli-Palestinian imbroglio, which would necessarily mean lifting the embargo on Hamas.

"Olmert may have heard about this change during his recent visit to Washington and decided to take some pre-emptive steps in that direction," said Baskin.

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