President George W. Bush’s visit to Israel this week accomplished part of what it was designed to do — prompt Israeli and Palestinian leaders to begin talking about the seemingly intractable core issues standing in the way of a peace agreement.
On his arrival Wednesday, Bush spoke of the U.S. and Israel’s “deep desire for security, for freedom and for peace throughout the Middle East.” And he assured Israeli leaders that their two countries had a strong alliance that “helps guarantee Israel’s security as a Jewish state.”
Although there have been months of talks between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, the two men have not addressed the three key issues: the future borders of Israel and a Palestinian state, what will become of the Palestinian refugees and the future of Jerusalem. Meeting just hours before Bush’s arrival, the two men agreed to launch talks on those issues.
“It was to bless his efforts and to give the president support,” said Professor Arie Kacowicz, chairman of the Department of International Relations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
He noted that the last time the two sides discussed these issues was at Camp David in 2000. But those talks ended in failure, with both sides blaming each other for the collapse and President Clinton siding with Israel’s version.
In this new round of negotiations, both sides have pledged to try to reach an agreement before Bush leaves office next January.
“Whether they will have the time in a year to complete it is a very difficult question to answer,” Kacowicz said.
Even Bush is uncertain whether an accord would be finalized. He told Israel’s Channel 2 Sunday: “There’ll be an agreement on what a [Palestinian] state would look like, in my judgment. I am not going to try to force the issue because of my own timetable, but I do believe that Prime Minister Olmert and President Abbas do want to get this done.”
Many Israelis have the same doubts and do not believe Bush has the magic touch needed to bridge the gaps.
“He is irrelevant to the peace process,” Efraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, said bluntly. “I don’t think the parties can reach an agreement on the main issues. They are too much apart and I don’t think compromise is in reach. Even if an agreement can be reached, it can’t be implemented.”
Both Olmert and Abbas are considered weak leaders, with Olmert unpopular and Abbas fearful of Hamas, which now controls Gaza.
Told that the Palestinians have pledged to put before the voters any draft agreement, Inbar replied: “We have seen already the great Palestinian democracy at work with the military coup in Gaza.”
Shlomo Aronson, a professor of political science at Hebrew University, was equally skeptical.
“Bush is perceived by most Israelis as someone whose time is over,” he said. “Therefore this last-minute effort to revive the peace process is more or less the making of Secretary of State [Condoleezza] Rice. She is trying to save her reputation some way and he [Bush] is following her initiative. But two events are shadowing the visit — the release of the Winograd Commission’s final report” and the U.S. presidential primaries.
The Winograd Commission’s report into the government’s handling of the war against Hezbollah in Lebanon in the summer of 2006 is scheduled for release at the end of the month and Israeli press reports say it will be very critical of Olmert’s performance, Aronson said.
“If indeed the report is very harsh, Mr. Olmert’s fate will be hanging in the air,” he said. “Even though the report is not expected to call for his resignation, the contents of the report will probably be devastating. It will cover the beginning of the war in which Olmert refrained from declaring an emergency situation, the end of the war and the way he handled the civilian aspects of the war. So what Bush is doing is giving Olmert a friendly gesture on the eve of the report, to say there are positive developments [under his administration].”
Bush described Olmert to the Israeli media as a “strong leader” and a man “with a vision.”
Nevertheless, Aronson said he believed “this is not going to divert public attention” from a harshly critical Winograd report.
If the report is as critical as expected, there is going to be pressure on Labor Party leader Ehud Barak to make good on his pledge to pull his party out of the coalition government with Olmert and to seek early elections if Olmert declines to resign. Olmert said last week that he has no intention of resigning.
A critical report could also compel Olmert’s Kadima Party to replace him as party leader and prime minister, or Olmert could try to form a new government without Labor. Another possibility is that Barak could agree to new elections at the end of 2008 — a year early, thus allowing him to remain in the government as defense minister until then and still fulfilling his commitment for early elections.
Another scenario is that one or both of the two rightwing parties in the coalition might also pull out of the government. Avigdor Lieberman, the leader of one of them, Yisrael Beiteinu, had said he would withdraw if the core issues were discussed. But this week he said he would not withdraw while Bush was in town.
Kacowicz believes Lieberman will stay in the government. He noted that Israel refused a Palestinian request that the core issues be broken up and handled by separate negotiating teams. Laconic said Olmert wants them discussed as a package because “there are linkages and he wants to tell Lieberman that there are not going to be specific talks about Jerusalem or borders but rather general talks about these issues together.”
Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, said Lieberman’s commitment to remain in the government during Bush’s visit is evidence that he wants to stay and is no hurry to dissolve the government.
“Elections mean [Benjamin] Netanyahu [may be elected] and none of the people [in the government] want that,” he said.
Steinberg said it was also “very, very unlikely” that the Kadima Party would push Olmert out and replace him with the current foreign minister, Tzipi Livni. And he said he believes Barak “will find a way to stall for time and will leave himself an exit” strategy to avoid new elections.
“Olmert is in a much stronger position than he was after the [preliminary] Winograd” findings were released, Steinberg said.
“He weathered that storm and he has had accomplishments since then, including the Bush visit and the [aerial] attack in Syria,” he said. “That attack corrected the impression that Israeli deterrence [had declined] after the Lebanon War and he is less vulnerable now. The corruption charges against him have not stuck. I would not underestimate his staying power.”
But the Palestinians are not so sure. Abdullah Abdullah, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, told the BBC that the Israelis may dissolve the government as a “gimmick” to delay peace talks for “four months or more.”