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The success of negotiations on a permanent settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict does not depend on the continued tenure of Ehud Olmert as prime minister. To the contrary, his remaining in office while under investigation for a growing number of corruption charges can do more harm than good not only to Israeli governance, but also to the capacity to achieve a genuine accord.
It is high time that the Israeli public and its leaders divest themselves of the illusion that the termination of the conflict depends on the political fate of one person. It has always hinged - today more than ever before - on the collective will to end the occupation and to take the absolutely essential steps to establish a durable Palestinian state alongside Israel.
The Annapolis initiative, six months after its commencement, is heading in the opposite direction than that defined by its designers, frequently with their collusion. The bilateral negotiations, despite the regularity with which they take place, seem to be going nowhere. Unless the thick cloak of secrecy that surrounds the talks is lifted, this impression (with all the loss of hope it entails) will continue to be reinforced daily.
The multilateral efforts set in motion at Annapolis to ameliorate the humanitarian crisis and revive Palestinian institutions are floundering as a result of the ongoing siege of Gaza, massive restrictions on the movement of people and goods in the West Bank, and relentless Israeli military incursions. By virtually every conceivable measure, conditions on the ground - far from improving - have actually deteriorated in the past few months.
Even the US supervisors charged in Annapolis with overseeing the implementation of the first phase of the road map are frustrated at every turn. They have been left with the thankless task of recording that no outposts have been dismantled and that settlement expansion has accelerated with the not-so-tacit approval of the Olmert government. They note that the number of roadblocks has not decreased, nor has Palestinian mobility been eased. They are helpless in the face of persistent rocket attacks against Israeli civilian targets. Violence continues in predictable waves, effectively obliterating the remnants of any trust between Israelis and Palestinians.
The post-Annapolis picture is bleak. It highlights the growing gap between the promise of a negotiated resolution of the conflict and the reality of institutionalized division and separation which is being cemented on the ground. If these trends continue much longer, then the negotiations started a few months ago will collapse, and with them the two-state option.
Ehud Olmert and his government are accountable, at least in part, for this sorry state of affairs. To imply that should he remain in office it will be possible to diverge from this course not only defies the facts, it constitutes a cynical manipulation which does nothing to alter this deleterious pattern.
Indeed, it is by now indisputable that it is not the political idiosyncrasies or fragility of any particular leader that has prevented a political agreement, but an unwillingness to recognize and deal with the basic issues it must embrace.
THE BELATED adoption of the two-state formula by the majority of Israelis has yet to be translated into an acceptance of the June 4, 1967 boundaries as the basis for any fair settlement and the benchmark for the end of the occupation. The need to share Jerusalem as a capital for two states - an indispensable byproduct of this imperative - is still being resisted on practical political, as well as ideological, grounds. The settlement enterprise is being protected even when it is widely acknowledged as the most concrete obstacle to Palestinian territorial integrity and viable sovereignty. And, needless to say, there is really no candid attempt to come to terms with the question of the refugees.
The Israeli tendency to skirt the central issues of the conflict dates back many years. It is associated with every single prime minister since 1967. To assume that Ehud Olmert differs from his predecessors in this regard is not only to give him credit where it is not due, but also to absolve the public and its representatives from coming to terms with the full implications of a just settlement.
Successive Israeli governments have preferred to fall back on the myth of a symmetrical national conflict between Israelis and Palestinians when no such power equivalency exists as long as Israel controls Palestinian territories and lives. Constant references to the absence of credible or authoritative partners may make for good rhetoric; it does not lay the groundwork for productive talks. The consequent foot-dragging assumes that time is not a factor, when the feasibility of the two-state scenario is fast running out of time.
The artificial retention of Ehud Olmert in office will not make much of a difference unless the required paradigm shift occurs. It also runs the danger of making any agreement, if reached, less credible because of its association with a leader suspected of promoting it in order to salvage his tottering political career.
If Ehud Olmert really cares about the future of Israel and stands behind his position that the occupation is wrong and that Israel cannot afford to continue ruling over another people, then he should tender his resignation without further ado. His successor would do well to learn from past mistakes and embark on negotiations which address both the veritable causes and the inequitable outcomes of the conflict with a view to resolving them and bringing about an end to almost a century of strife and acrimony.