Converge on Negotiations
Today, Singapore, 22/06/2006
Since the sad and unexpected departure of Israel’s PM Sharon from the scene in January this year, his replacement Ehud Olmert has spent a lot of time meeting foreign heads of state, abroad and in Israel. After taking charge, he has met Germany’s Angela Merkel, President Bush, Tony Blair, Jacques Chirac, Mubarak of Egypt and Abdullah of Jordan, quite a list of prime movers. Olmert’s interlocutors were exposed to his charm, his forceful and clear language, his over-the-top flattery and also to his total conviction that he knows how to get Israel out of the present mess. In these meetings he tried to sell his vague convergence plan (unilateral withdrawal from parts of the West Bank) giving little more than lip service to negotiations with the Palestinian Authority (PA). His pitch received responses ranging from deep concern (Abdullah) to polite interest (Bush and Blair) but no real support that Olmert could possibly take to the bank. As far as Olmert is concerned, the fact that friendly nations did not totally negate convergence, left the PM satisfied that all is well and there is no reason to abandon his unilateral ambitions.
Olmert is hitching the carriage in front of the horses – instead of putting all of Israel’s efforts into getting negotiations with the Palestinians going and withdraw /converge as part of an agreement, he surmises that negotiations will eventually collapse so the convergence plan should be the main goal. He may even delude himself that wielding convergence as a stick to put pressure on the Palestinians is a good tactical move. Instead it is liable to doom negotiating efforts by further radicalizing the Palestinians who are already reverting to extreme positions for the sake of Palestinian unity.
In view of Israel’s record of preempting negotiations through unilateral territorial actions, the convergence plan has the Palestinians in fits. In reaction, the coalescing PA coalition between Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas reflects the attitude of Israel’s leadership – just as Israel is pushing unilateral convergence primarily for internal consumption, the PA is about to adopt positions which are great for Palestinian harmony but deadly for peace negotiations.
In the meantime the situation is deteriorating and Palestinians are rocketing populated areas in Israel to an extent that no government can tolerate for long, even though, by and large, damage and casualties have been limited. Israel’s responses, more by accident than disproportionality, are needlessly victimizing civilians in Palestine and driving the population towards Hamas. The relative hiatus imposed on more aggressive Israeli army operations by Olmert’s dovish coalition partner from Labour, Minister of Defense Amir Peretz, is unlikely to last much longer if Palestinian rockets keep flying. In reality however Israel does not have any viable military options that would put an end to the rockets other than reoccupying the Gaza strip, a move which presently is not on the table.
Olmert has painted himself into a corner - while the new Palestinian government’s positions will make it difficult for Israel to negotiate, there is simply no other choice to get away from the status-quo. Palestinian rockets will keep flying, Israel’s military’s hands in this asymmetric exchange are tied and initiating convergence under such terms would be an exercise in futility creating more problems while solving none.
It is a testimony to the apathy of the Israeli public that demonstrations in favor of negotiations have been rare and sparsely attended until now. Citizens, other than those in the rocketed areas (who call for tough action), have not yet lost patience with Olmert’s government which appears to be single-mindedly focused on convergence disregarding the numerous warning signs on the horizon.
Mahmoud Abbas has repeatedly been asking for negotiations. Olmert has indicated that he wants to meet Abbas but a photo-opportunity like yesterday’s get-together in Jordan won’t suffice. A summit has to take place as soon as Abbas indicates he is ready after resolving the Palestinian position, otherwise Hamas will call all the shots from behind the scenes.
Olmert is making a major mistake – the Israeli public, indifferent as it may appear now, quickly loses patience with a PM who doesn’t deliver, just ask former PM Barak. Convergence as a unilateral act and not as part of a negotiated agreement with the PA will just not fly. Israel will have to negotiate with the Palestinians face to face even if their stated positions appear untenable, and the sooner the better. Ehud Olmert should be smart enough to know this – delaying any further is unconscionable.