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(photo credit: Alex Kolomoisky)
Whether Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's remaining time in office is measured in weeks or months, it is clear the task that will occupy him most - besides contending with multiple police investigations - is forging some kind of agreement with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas on the outlines of a final-status deal between Israel and the Palestinians.
Olmert is not the first prime minister who finds himself in this position; the current situation bears some resemblance to the final push by Ehud Barak's government to reach agreement with Yasser Arafat's PA at the Taba talks in January 2001, just three weeks before Israel held a national election.
But one aspect of the comparison that differs greatly is the respective positions of Olmert and Barak in their last moments in office, and what they hoped to achieve on a personal political level in those talks.
When Barak sent a negotiating team headed by Yossi Beilin down to Taba to sit with the Palestinians, the nation was in the midst of the opening months of the Second Intifada, and he was in the home stretch of a reelection campaign. Trailing in the polls against Likud challenger Ariel Sharon, the Taba talks had the whiff of a last-minute "Hail Mary pass" play by Barak, to redeem the failure of the Camp David summit the previous summer, and offer voters some glimmer of hope beyond the ongoing Palestinian violence.
The Taba conference was no mere electoral exercise, though; with Barak looking to beat the odds and win reelection, he would have been bound as prime minister to follow through on any agreements, or even understandings, reached there.
Olmert, in contrast, is not looking to secure his immediate political future, but his long-term position in history. On the peace and security front, his two years in office are now primarily marked by the failures of the Second Lebanon War and the Hamas takeover of Gaza. A deal with the Palestinians, even a limited "shelf agreement" with little chance of implementation in the near future, is surely perceived by the prime minister as his last chance to leave a plus-mark on his legacy report card, if it should eventually serve as the basis of a future final deal.
Having already committed himself to resigning after the Kadima primary, and thus not bound by the complication of having to either implement any of the agreements he reaches with Abbas in the near future, or even having to sell them to the Israeli public, theoretically gives Olmert greater latitude to explore positions that he might otherwise be deterred from due to strictly domestic political considerations.
Those skeptical of or opposed to making any final agreement with the Palestinians at this time see this as giving Olmert a license to take dangerous diplomatic risks, while those who view this task as the nation's most urgent necessity suggest it might help in at least breaking ground by bringing new ideas to the negotiating table.
Indeed, this is the position taken by those such as Beilin, who still views his work at Taba, despite the lack of any official follow-up, as having set some useful precedents.
One example of that, arguably, is the idea reportedly discussed between Olmert and Abbas about wider international participation in resolving the status of Jerusalem, in particular the so-called "Holy Basin" - the area in and around the capital's Old City that contains sites sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims.
Although "internationalization" of the Jerusalem issue dates back to the UN Partition Agreement of 1947, it's a position Israel has traditionally opposed as weakening its claim to sovereignty over the united capital. It was at Taba that Israeli negotiators first explored this possibility in official talks, at least in regard to the Holy Places. As European special representative to the Middle East peace process Miguel Moratinos later revealed in his so-called "Taba Non-Paper": "Another option for the Holy Basin, suggested informally by the Israeli side, was to create a special regime or to suggest some form of internationalization for the entire area or a joint regime with special cooperation and coordination. The Palestinian side did not agree to pursue any of these ideas, although the discussion could continue."
If the discussion has indeed continued in the current negotiations between Israel and the PA, it confirms that talks by even the lamest of lame duck governments at the time can eventually serve as meaningful precedents.
However, there is no arguing the fact that the Taba talks failed in their immediate political purposes for the Barak government, and it is instructive recalling why. It was not just the fact that once again Israel and the Palestinians failed to reach agreement on the most contentious final status issues. Despite that, both sides broke from the conference trying to put a positive spin on it, claiming progress had indeed been made.
Just one day after the talks ended, though, on January 28, Yasser Arafat took to the stage at the annual Davos Summit, and in the presence of the world's leaders - including his most fervent peace partner, Shimon Peres - delivered his most blistering public anti-Israel tirade since signing the Oslo Accords, accusing it of "blatant and fascist military aggression against our Palestinian people." His outrageous performance that day totally undercut any of the news that came out of Taba, sealed whatever remaining chances Barak had, and effectively ended the Israeli-Palestinian peace process until Arafat's death almost four years later.
This, then, is perhaps the most important precedent the Taba talks contain regarding the current discussions with the Palestinians. The Israeli focus, naturally, is on what the prime minister is willing to concede - or not - in these negotiations.
But more important than the fact that Olmert is looking to leave his mark on history, is that soon he will be history.
It is only Mahmoud Abbas who will remain, for the time being, to continue these discussions with Olmert's successors, or deal with the consequences if they do not. And how history judges the value of these talks will depend far more on the degree to which Abbas understands this is likely his best last chance to avoid joining together with Olmert in historical irrelevancy - or, even worse, with Arafat in ignominy.