No real difference

PM Ehud Olmert’s new lame duck status will make almost no difference to the outcome of Israel’s peace processes with the Palestinians and the Syrians, which in any case had little or no chance to succeed in the near term. It might make a difference in Israel’s indirect negotiations with Hamas regarding a prisoner exchange.

Nor does it matter appreciably for the peace process whether Olmert remains prime minister for only three months (assuming his elected successor as head of Kadima succeeds in forming a coalition) or six to nine months (assuming his successor fails, new elections are precipitated and Olmert rules until a new government is sworn in after elections). It’s the same Olmert, but in a worse situation: his Arab negotiating partners, whether from Ramallah, Gaza or Damascus, know he’s leaving office and enjoys neither public nor Knesset support.

Olmert’s negotiations with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, enshrined last November in the Annapolis process, were doomed to failure from the start for three reasons. First, neither Olmert nor Abbas has the capacity to deliver on an agreement. Olmert and his government are incapable of removing a single substantive outpost, much less a settlement. Even before he announced his departure from politics, Olmert’s credibility among the Israeli public was close to zero. As for Abbas, he barely controls parts of the West Bank, much less the Gaza Strip, and has failed to reform the aging and corrupt Fateh leadership. Then too, the Bush administration as host to this process is also stumbling toward the end of its term, having failed in almost everything it has touched in the Middle East.

Second, Olmert and Abbas are not likely to agree on the two "existential" issues in an Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Jerusalem and the refugee/right of return question, regarding both of which the two peoples have probably moved farther apart since Camp David 2000. The Jerusalem issue in any case has reportedly been left out of negotiations, even as Olmert creates new settlement facts in and around the city that render eventual agreement that much more difficult. In the best case, if the Israeli and Palestinian negotiating teams do emerge with an agreement before Olmert leaves office, it will be partial and almost certainly unacceptable to both publics. Indeed, this is not a "best case" at all: such an abortive agreement may actually do more harm than good to the long-term prospects for Israeli-Palestinian coexistence.

Finally, Olmert never built a peace coalition to support the two peace processes, and it’s too late to do so now. His government, even after the defection of Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu party, has always been a survival coalition designed to keep Olmert afloat politically after the Second Lebanon War debacle. The Shas party and even a few members of Kadima are likely to join the opposition in rejecting any peace deal Olmert produces.

The fortunes of an Israel-Syria peace agreement under Olmert are somewhat less worrisome. Olmert, President Bashar Assad and their Turkish hosts understand that no agreement can be concluded without a serious American commitment to negotiate with Damascus a new strategic orientation that removes it from the Iranian orbit. This task will of necessity be based on compromises regarding such sensitive issues as the Hariri tribunal and Syrian-Lebanese relations. Olmert has evidently not exploited his position of influence with Washington to encourage Bush to take this step. Time is now running out on both leaders. Yet precisely because the limits of these negotiations are clear, there would appear to be less harm involved, and more possible profit, from continuing to talk even on Olmert’s watch.

Here we must pause and address an additional question: will Olmert, knowing his days as prime minister and possibly in Israeli politics in general are numbered, now be more cautious and reserved in his negotiating pose vis-a-vis Abbas and Assad or more daring? He has already declared that he intends to press on with negotiations as long as he remains in office. But we can assume that his Arab negotiating partners will adopt a more reserved pose, insofar as they realize that Olmert cannot deliver on almost any deal he makes and won’t be around for long. Hence it probably doesn’t matter whether Olmert is henceforth more audacious or more reserved.

Except for one instance: a prisoner-exchange deal with Hamas that brings IDF soldier Gilad Shalit home. Such an exchange does not require Knesset approval and, as we have seen, Cabinet approval appears to be readily available even when the repatriated IDF soldiers are deceased. The generally favorable way the Israeli public received the Israel-Hizballah prisoner deal, coupled with Olmert’s knowledge that he does not face a reelection campaign or even a Knesset vote of no confidence and his obvious desire to fully close the file on the Second Lebanon War before leaving office, might now embolden him to address Hamas’ demand to release hundreds of hard-core Palestinian terrorists in return for Shalit.