Ordinary people

The senior ministries in Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s new government are manned by people of relatively limited decision-making experience at the national security level. The prime minister himself has always dealt with economic or municipal matters; Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni was catapulted to high office by Ariel Sharon; Minister of Defense Amir Peretz was a labor union leader. Their detractors argue that they are not up to the heavy issues awaiting them; that a few seasoned ex-generals are needed. Their supporters say it’s about time "ordinary people" ran the country.

What can we expect from them regarding Israeli-Palestinian issues? Their declared agenda is "convergence", meaning more disengagement. Their immediate timetable is fairly clear. Initially, in the coming two months, they will reach a maximum degree of coordination at the international level, first with US President George W. Bush, followed by the Europeans, Egypt and Jordan. Then, they will launch a "national dialogue" in an attempt to galvanize public opinion behind an agreed Israel-Palestine border (agreed, that is, among most Israelis). Then the government will legislate the convergence program, offer inducements to settlers to leave voluntarily, and begin building houses for the settlers who will be displaced. All the while, it will complete the security fence as quickly as possible, along a path that defines the disengagement and improves the Palestinian situation in several sensitive areas, including East Jerusalem.

Olmert and Livni face a challenge with regard to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen). They don’t want to negotiate with him. They assess he lacks the necessary authority and leadership qualities, that his negotiating demands would preclude a successful outcome, and that in any event he would need Hamas government approval for any deal he strikes with Israel. But Peretz does want to try another round of talks with Abu Mazen, and the US administration may agree with him. In any case, Olmert and Livni will wait a few months just in case the Hamas government accepts the international conditions and agrees to negotiate on reasonable terms. Washington may also insist that Olmert begin by dismantling those troublesome outposts that Sharon long ago committed to remove. Here, then, are several reasons why Olmert may feel he needs two years to actually begin implementing convergence.

All in all, there is precious little space for an active Palestinian role in Olmert’s plans. That is one reason why some Palestinians accuse him of planning an apartheid map. Another is that Olmert’s unilateral fence and settlement removal project do not go back to the green line. These arguments are wrong-headed, and the world, including our neighbors Egypt and Jordan, should tell the Palestinians so. They are wrong because the settlement blocs Olmert plans to hold onto are more or less within the parameters negotiated in 2000 between Yasser Arafat and Ehud Barak; because the world will in any case not recognize Israel’s unilaterally-delineated fence-border as a sovereign boundary; and because Olmert clearly describes the Israeli presence in the Jordan Valley as a security (not political) border. This means the Palestinians get more territory, more contiguity and fewer settlers in return for nothing, without prejudicing final status borders in terms of international law, an! d at a time when they themselves are not capable of mounting a viable effort to negotiate a two-state solution.

Olmert, and Sharon before him, represent a post-Camp David II, post-intifada II Israeli approach to the conflict with the Palestinians. It is based on conflict management rather than conflict resolution. It seeks first and foremost to extract Israel from a demographic trap laid by the settlers and the Palestinians, each for their own reasons, and to create better conditions for dealing with Palestinian suicide bombings. Palestinians can blame us for their situation, here and there convincingly. But they had also better begin blaming themselves: it is they who have been launching the suicide bombers, who elected Hamas, and who still insist on the right of return and other conditions that preclude a genuine peace.

Olmert’s approach began as a reaction to all this. Now it is pro-active and unilateral. The bigger question is whether the constraints of the Israeli political system, coupled with the personal limitations Olmert shares with his senior ministers, will allow these "ordinary people" to succeed. Palestinians of good will have every reason to set aside their anger and frustration and wish them well.