Maintenance mode

Israel finds itself in a unique position in terms of both its political history and the annals of the Israel-Arab peace process. PM Ehud Olmert has resigned and elections have been set for February 10, 2009. The elections have caught Israel in the throes of two peace processes, with the PLO and Syria. Olmert, who is not running for reelection, has indicated that he intends to pursue negotiations on both fronts.

Non-candidate Olmert is apparently concerned less with the effect on the elections of the ongoing negotiations than with his legacy–as well as perhaps his long-term prospects for a political comeback once his legal troubles are behind him. Be that as it may, he has ensured that he and his peace process-related decisions will become a factor in these elections. Any achievements and setbacks in talks with either the PLO or Syria in the months ahead could conceivably help or hinder the election efforts of Tzipi Livni, Ehud Barak, Binyamin Netanyahu and the smaller sectoral parties on the left and right. This is particularly problematic for Livni, Olmert’s designated successor in the Kadima party, whom Olmert clearly does not support and who is running on a set of peace principles that do not necessarily coincide with Olmert’s.

Nor can the other side, the PLO and the Syrian leadership, feel free to negotiate with Olmert while ignoring the political implications for their future relationship with Israel. Olmert is a lame duck leader who lacks the support of his own party, much less the Knesset.

But since the two peace process tracks will remain open in the months ahead, three additional factors become relevant. One is the coincidence of Israel’s electoral process with that in the United States. The identity of the next American president and his anticipated political leanings could markedly affect the way Israelis vote or, for that matter, the way Olmert chooses to pursue peace in the coming months. Specifically, if Barack Obama is elected the anticipation of his playing an activist role in Israel-Arab affairs could have a dovish influence on both.

A second relevant factor is events in Palestine. If there are no elections in Palestine this coming January there may be disorder, as the Gaza ceasefire comes to an end and Hamas again challenges Fateh. New violence between Israelis and Palestinians or even among Palestinians could push some Israeli voters to the right. On the other hand, a Fateh-Hamas rapprochement, engineered in the weeks ahead by Egypt, could present Israeli decision-makers with hard choices regarding the identity of their Palestinian negotiating partners.

Yet another factor is the different chances of success of the two tracks, the Palestinian and the Syrian. The Annapolis process, commenced a year ago by three weak leaders, Olmert, Abbas and US President George W. Bush, never had much chance of success and apparently never registered much progress. In contrast the Israeli-Syrian process, solicited originally by Assad and endorsed by the Israeli security community, has gained momentum and supporters because of its relevance for broader regional strategic issues such as Iran, Lebanon, Hizballah and Hamas. If he so desires, Olmert’s prospects for trying to create some sort of peace process fait accompli in the months ahead are better on the Syrian track.

It is not without precedent for an outgoing Israeli prime minister to continue negotiating up to the last minute. Yitzhak Shamir did it in 1992 in Washington, as did Ehud Barak at Taba in 2001. Unlike Olmert, both were running for reelection. Barak, in particular, lost votes among some Israelis who insisted he had no mandate to pursue negotiations.

It stands to reason that both Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Syrian President Bashar Assad, while welcoming ongoing contacts with Israel, will avoid entering into any definitive commitments with Olmert that could end up embarrassing everybody. Olmert’s Palestinian and Syrian negotiating partners should be aware of the pitfalls of pursuing serious negotiating progress with the outgoing Israeli prime minister at this critical juncture. If Olmert himself doesn’t understand or accept the need to redefine the negotiations as "maintenance mode" pending the arrival of a new government in Jerusalem, then Abbas, Assad and the next US president should.