Just how many bowling pins can Ehud Olmert juggle at once? The embattled Israeli Prime Minister is fighting off a corruption probe, negotiating prisoner swaps first with Hizballah and now Hamas, and simultaneously orchestrating indirect negotiations with Syria and direct peace talks with the Palestinian Authority. And the strain is starting to show. On Tuesday, Olmert told a parliamentary committee that an accord with the Palestinians on the future status of Jerusalem is unlikely by the end of this year, which would deny President Bush the in-principle Middle East peace agreement he hoped to achieve before leaving office.
Olmert isn’t giving up on talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas just yet. The Israeli Prime Minister said that while the fate of Jerusalem would remain unresolved, the remainder of a peace agreement that would give the Palestinians control over much of the land occupied by Israel in 1967 was still probable. The proposed deal, of course, is a “shelf agreement,” an exercise in marking out the parameters of a future peace process that would be implemented only when Israel’s security demands are met. The assumption, in the talks, is that the current Palestinian leadership would be unable to enforce a peace deal, and that it would instead serve to create a “political horizon” that could bolster President Abbas in his power struggle with Hamas.
Still, Olmert’s backtracking on Jerusalem — a deal breaker for the Palestinians — is a significant splash of cold water on the enthusiasm that the Israeli Prime Minister himself expressed two weeks ago in Paris, when he told French President Nicolas Sarkozy that Palestinians and Israelis have never been closer to a peace agreement. Until now, Olmert had been playing along with a rosy Bush Administration–scenario that predicted a peace agreement (if destined for the shelf, rather than implementation) by the end of 2008. Palestinian negotiators are now saying that without an agenda that includes Jerusalem, which Palestinians want to share and make the capital of a future Palestinian state, even the shelf-agreement talks are meaningless.
The fact that the Israeli government, the Palestinian Authority and the Bush Administration have been willing to engage in this hypothetical peace exercise at all may have had less to do with the state of the conflict than with the political needs of the leaders involved. The Bush Administration is desperate for foreign policy success in a region littered with its failures. President Abbas needs to show that he can deliver through negotiation what his more-popular rivals in Hamas are unable to achieve through violence. As for Olmert, addressing Israelis’ long-standing desire to resolve the conflict with their neighbors has helped him stay afloat politically even as his popularity has plunged following his disastrous management of the 2006 war in Lebanon.
But with prospects for a peace deal slipping, the sharks will start circling. The increasingly lame-duck Bush Administration is already reversing itself on major Middle East policies by sending senior diplomats to engage Iran and hinting at a horizon for a troop withdrawal in Iraq. Hamas, already masters of the Gaza Strip, bragged recently that they could take on Fatah in the West Bank too, if not for President Abbas’s movement enjoying the de facto protection of the Israelis. And Olmert’s rivals also smell blood. Tzipi Livni, his Foreign Minister and rival within the Kadima Party, called once again on Tuesday for the Prime Minister to resign, and Defense Secretary Ehud Barak, leader of the Labor Party, may join the pressure for Olmert to take the honorable way out. Regardless of his preferences, Olmert may have to resign anyway if he is indicted on corruption charges alleging that he accepted cash from a U.S. businessman and doubled-charged travel expenses to Israeli charities that had sponsored his trips. But passing the stage of the current cast of paper-tiger leaders may open the way for a new generation of leaders to get their hands dirty in the messier work of negotiating a peace plan for implementation.
— With reporting by Aaron Klein / Jerusalem and Jamil Hamad / Bethlehem