Sunday, January 13, 2008



Operetta in Two Acts

By Hillel Halkin

New York Sun

January 8, 2008


President Bush's brief visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories tomorrow and Thursday will be staged as an operetta in two acts.


In Act One, the president will meet with Prime Minister Olmert in Jerusalem, where he will be told of Israel's determination to conduct successful peace talks with the Palestinians, to remove illegal outposts, and to ease up on military checkpoints, and where he will in turn assure the prime minister that America is behind him.


In Act Two, Mr. Bush will meet with President Abbas of Palestine in Ramallah, where he will be told of the Palestinian Authority's determination to conduct successful peace talks with Israel, to crack down on terror, and to put European and American foreign aid to productive use, and where he will in turn assure Mr. Abbas that America is behind him.


Then Mr. Bush will reboard Air Force One and fly on to the next stop of his Middle East tour while most illegal outposts and Israeli military checkpoints stay where they are, no real crackdown on terror takes place, foreign aid to the Palestinians is frittered away by a corrupt bureaucracy, and Israeli-Palestinian peace talks go nowhere in the course of the next year.


The next year, indeed, is about as far ahead as Messrs. Olmert, Abbas, and Bush are thinking. All each of them wants to do is get quietly through it.


Mr. Olmert knows that peace talks with the Palestinians cannot succeed. Even if he were personally willing to make the far-reaching concessions necessary for their success on such matters as borders, Jerusalem, and the refugees, there is no way for him politically to do so without losing his governing coalition in the Knesset.


The two right-of-center parties in this coalition have made it clear that they will desert him if he tries, and without them he would have to agree to new elections that he cannot win and might not even get his own party's nomination to run in. His inability so far to shut down even the outposts, which would be the merest foreplay compared to the mass evacuation of settlers that a peace agreement would entail, illustrates how little room for maneuver he has.


Yet Mr. Olmert also knows that it is only the illusion of successful peace talks that can continue to keep him in the prime minister's office at all. He is unpopular in the polls, he is still facing several corruption charges even after being cleared of others, and he stands to be badly hurt by the findings, due to be released at the end of this month, of the Winograd Commission's investigation of the botched 2005 war against Hizbullah that took place on his watch.


The one thing Mr. Olmert has going for him is his coalition partners' fear of new elections, which could well bring back Benjamin Netanyahu and the Likud party – and this fear needs the window dressing of the peace process to be marketable as concern for the nation. One can count on Mr. Olmert to do all he can in the months ahead to make this process look as promising as possible. Mr. Abbas is in the same boat. He too cannot make the minimal concessions to Israel that might enable negotiations to succeed. He has lost the Gaza Strip to Hamas and his control over his own Fatah is shaky; were he to give in on the refugee or borders, his days would be numbered.


His main selling point to the Palestinian public is his ability to bring in large contributions of money that can partly be pumped into a destitute Palestinian economy and partly divided up among the factions that support him – and to do that he must, just like Mr. Olmert, keep sounding as if peace were around the corner.


As for Mr. Bush, it is reasonable to assume that he knows the score. Unlike the Israeli prime minister and the Palestinian president, he does not have to worry about how long he will stay in office; the number of days, hours, and minutes is already spelled out. Nor will history judge him by what he did or didn't do about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He will be judged on the basis of Iraq and it may be years after he leaves the presidency before that judgment is in.


Until then Mr. Bush has nothing to lose by acting as though he were pushing the Palestinians and Israelis forward. When, a year from now, he retires with their problems still unsolved, no one will blame him for it, while if by some miracle progress is made, a good part of the credit will go to him.


In the meantime, he might as well humor Condoleezza Rice and whoever else thinks that a tad more diplomacy, a bit more rationality, and a touch of good is all that is needed for the two sides to arrive at an agreement that has eluded them for the last 70 years, ever since the Arab world turned down the first two-state proposal for Palestine, made by the British-appointed Peel Commission in 1937.


From Israel's point of view the second term of the Bush administration, none friendlier than which is ever likely to come again in Washington, has been largely squandered.


Instead of trying to negotiate an impossible agreement about the Israel of the future with the Palestinians, Mr. Olmert should have tried harder to negotiate a possible one with Mr. Bush. Now, though, that's all spilled milk. For 2008, the show can go on.


Hillel Halkin


Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.


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