While many of us have focused our attention in recent days on the presidential campaign and the frightening economic meltdown at home, Israel has been undergoing yet another political and diplomatic upheaval, further splitting the electorate and making Tzipi Livni’s job of putting together a ruling coalition that much more difficult.
The catalyst was Ehud Olmert, who having submitted his resignation as prime minister (though still in power until his successor is in place), has spoken more openly than ever about what he feels Israel must do to achieve peace — namely, retreat to essentially the pre-1967 borders by giving up nearly all of the West Bank as well as the Golan Heights and much of east Jerusalem in return for peace.
Other prime ministers have spoken of the need for “painful concessions” but no one ever spelled it out as directly or bleakly as Olmert did last week.
And while he has received praise in some quarters for putting the issues on the table, the prime minister has been skewered from the left for only now speaking out, as a lame duck leader, and from the right for appearing to surrender. In a Rosh HaShanah interview with Yediot Aharanot, he emphasized that Israel is in a position of strength — “we can handle all our enemies together and win” — without explaining why giving up all the land conquered in 1967 would not make the country weaker.
Lame duck or not, Olmert is still the prime minister and has the legal right to continue to pursue talks with Syria and continue negotiations with the Palestinians, and he appears eager to do so. All of which puts his fellow Kadima party colleague and successor Tzipi Livni, the foreign minister and would-be prime minister, in a real bind. Most immediately, she needs the fervently Orthodox Shas party to stay in the coalition she is trying to form in the next few weeks to allow her to lead the country without new national elections. But Shas, which primarily is interested in government funds for its own school system, has vowed to quit the government if negotiations are held that would divide Jerusalem.
On a broader level, Livni has been more circumspect on her views about a peace solution and is considered more hawkish than Olmert. How will she proceed now, especially in light of the depressing news on the negotiations front?
The good news is that the Israelis and the Palestinian Authority seem to agree on a basic element regarding peace talks. The bad news is that what they agree on is that there is no chance today to implement the current solution, proposed in Oslo more than 15 years ago and most recently heralded in Annapolis almost a year ago.
While the U.S. and its Quartet members push for some kind of “shelf agreement” before the end of the Bush tenure as a means of saving face, it’s clear that neither side wants, or can accept, the envisioned agreement because it asks more of Israel in terms of territorial concessions than its government can approve and survive politically, and it offers less than the minimum a fragile Palestinian Authority can accept and survive politically.
A number of experts remain convinced that the Oslo-based two-state solution is still the best hope for peace. That may be true, and the looming alternative of a one-state solution — a benign phrase that in fact spells the end of a Jewish state as soon as a majority of the voting population is Arab — would be devastating.
But does a negotiated solution simply translate into more concessions from Israel while the Palestinians consider renewed violence a legitimate option?
Longtime U.S. negotiator Dennis Ross wrote recently that a senior Israeli official told him “the only two people in the world who think that a deal is possible now” are “Ehud Olmert and Condi Rice.”
So much has changed for the worse, in terms of prospects for a two-state solution, since it was almost achieved in Taba in early 2001. For starters, as Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Giora Eiland, former head of the National Security Council in Israel, explained at the recent Weinberg Conference held by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, there were about 110,000 Jews living in West Bank settlements in 1993 and there are about 270,000 today. (What he did not say is that after the trauma Israel had in removing the several thousand Jews from Gaza in 2005, and the fact that few if any are in permanent homes, the prospect of dislodging tens of thousands of people from the West Bank seems impossible.)
And even if they could be relocated, would that make Israel more secure, Eiland asked?
Even more significant, he said, is that a second intifada took place in the ensuing years, killing thousands and hardening positions, and Hamas has emerged as a political and military force, in control of Gaza and steadfastly determined to eradicate, not negotiate with, Israel.
The peace talks that discuss a Palestinian breakthrough with Israel do not take into account Hamas’ clout, resistance to peace and apparent intentions to defeat Fatah (the PLO faction that controls the Palestinian Authority) and rule the West Bank.
The term of PA President Mahmoud Abbas expires in January, with a Hamas representative due to succeed him, and it is likely that a major military battle between Fatah and Hamas will take place before then.
Just because peace seekers can’t figure out how to deal with or get around Hamas does not mean the terror group can be ignored.
Eiland’s solution is for the Palestinians to gain independence but to be protected (primarily from Hamas) by Jordan, a plan he explained at the Weinberg Conference.
But while fellow panelist Marwan Muashar, a former foreign minister of Jordan and ambassador to Israel and the U.S., concurred that current Mideast peace talks were going nowhere, he dismissed the Eiland plan as unrealistic. “Good luck” finding Jordanians and Palestinians who will accept it, he said, and instead called for reviving the so-called Saudi initiative of 2002 that would offer Israel peace and normal relations with all the Arab states in return for Israel returning to its pre-1967 borders.
For years Israel has dismissed the plan, sometimes politely, sometimes outrightly. But now that it is essentially what Prime Minister Olmert is calling for, where does Jerusalem go from here?