When Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert promised on Monday to work towards a peace agreement resulting in a Palestinian state with territorial contiguity, some viewed it as a bold new initiative, while others dismissed it as nothing new.
The speech, made at the burial site in Sde Boker of David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, came just one day after a cease-fire went into effect in Gaza to end five months of conflict in which more than 300 Palestinians and five Israelis were reportedly killed.
"I hold out my hand in peace to our Palestinian neighbors in the hope that it won’t be returned empty," Olmert said, adding that the Palestinian people stood on the "threshold of an historic crossroads."
He promised that once the Palestinians form a government committed to the international road map for peace and release Cpl. Gilad Shalit (captured June 25 by Palestinian terrorists in a cross-border raid) he would invite Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to meet with him for peace talks.
While those talks are underway, Olmert said "numerous" Palestinian prisoners would be released, many roadblocks would be removed, there would be increased freedom of movement for people and goods, and Israel would release Palestinian funds (which now total more than $500 million) it is holding.
Haim Malka, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said Olmert was simply "repackaging" offers he had previously made. The difference, he said, is that instead of withdrawing from areas of the West Bank unilaterally, it would be done in consultation with the Palestinians.
"What is important about Olmert’s speech is that he talks from a position of strength," he said. "He is saying Israel is strong and can afford to take some risks to try out the cease-fire. That is significant because since the Lebanon War he has only been talking of threats. Now he is talking of opportunities and of giving the cease-fire a chance. … This is a positive step but it needs to be approached with caution. He has made a firm proposal, but a lot of questions remain."
Yossi Alpher, a political analyst and editor of the Palestinian-Israeli Web site, bitterlemons.com, said Olmert made the speech knowing that President George W. Bush was flying to Jordan this week to meet with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. Alpher said Olmert "wanted to show he was doing something and maybe get an invitation to meet."
In addition, Alpher said, Olmert "felt under pressure" knowing that Bush was arriving and "snubbing the Palestinian-Israeli" issue.
"This was his spin of the week," Alpher continued. "He had a cease-fire and he wanted to spin it out to the greatest advantage. He took the opportunity to build on it, when, in fact, it is an unstable cease-fire and no one knows how long it will last."
By mid-week there had been numerous violations of the cease-fire by Palestinians in the Gaza Strip who continued to fire at least a half-dozen rockets into Israel. No injuries were reported.
But Stephen P. Cohen, a national scholar of the Israel Policy Forum, pointed out that the number of rockets being fired from the Gaza Strip has dropped "dramatically" and that Olmert made his speech because "he sees there is no alternative" to making a peace agreement.
That idea has "even penetrated the hard heads of Hamas because they see that the people of Gaza are sick and tired of making no life," he said.
Cohen said it is his understanding that there is to be a "total cessation of violence" for at least six months.
"This conflict has gone on for about 87 years, so I’m not expecting that this is the last year of the conflict," he said, adding that if a good effort is made Israelis and Palestinians would be able to walk around without the fear of an attack.
Cohen said he hoped the U.S. would then convene a meeting between Israeli leaders and Abbas and Khalid Meshal, the exiled Hamas leader. He said Egypt, which arranged the cease-fire, would help to arrange the agenda for the meeting. He also suggested the possibility of a regional meeting organized by the U.S. that would include Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and Qatar, as well as Israel and the Palestinians.
"That meeting would be a public acknowledgement on everyone’s part that we are moving in the right direction," Cohen said.
A new element in Olmert’s speech was his request for the assistance of neighboring Arab states in achieving peace with the Palestinians and in terming as "positive" parts of the Saudi peace initiative of 2002.
Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, said because Abbas is "too weak to make an agreement" with Israel and Hamas would not "for ideological reasons, the Saudi plan can be a means of imposing an agreement on the Palestinians."
He pointed out that the Palestinians are "totally dependent on these states, and Olmert is saying he is going to get the backing of the Arab leaders and go over [the Palestinians’] heads if he has to" to achieve an agreement.