Analysis: Olmert's legacy hunt begins

3 key players are now worried about their legacy: Bush, Rice, and Olmert.

olmert 63 (photo credit:)
olmert 63
(photo credit: )
Now there are three key players dealing with the Middle East who are concerned about their legacy: US President George W. Bush, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and the newest addition - Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Despite hints in the Knesset that Olmert may run in the Kadima primaries now expected in September, Olmert's political career is, for all intents and purposes, over. With his latest political move, Olmert has bought himself a few more months as the nation's leader. Instead of the elections being held in November, they will likely be held in the Spring of 2009. And during those extra lame-duck months, Olmert is likely to concentrate on his legacy. Not wanting his more than three decades on the national stage to be defined by a shabbily waged war in Lebanon, thousands of rockets on the western Negev, and corruption scandals, he will look to leave a positive mark. And much like Bush and Rice, the place where Olmert obviously feels he can leave the most positive mark will be the diplomatic arena. For the last few weeks, Olmert has been shooting in all different diplomatic directions: Here saying that an agreement with the Palestinian Authority is possible; now saying that negotiations with Syria have begun; there talking about a possible deal with the Lebanese regarding Mount Dov/Shaba Farms. Up until Wednesday the feeling was that he was doing this to put up a smoke screen, to divert attention from Morris Talansky, to score one big diplomatic triumph to save his political career. Now that it looks like his political career is beyond saving, however, the diplomatic efforts will still be there, but they will be aimed at leaving a mark in the history books, not scoring key political points. On the Palestinian track, this hunt for a legacy will likely dovetail with the interests of PA President Mahmoud Abbas. Abbas knows that Olmert's political days are numbered, and as such clearly would like to finalize a deal with him - someone with whom he has developed a working relationship - that would then obligate whoever comes next. If Olmert's successor is Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Abbas may have no real need for concern, for her policies and those of Olmert on the Palestinian track are not that dramatically different. But if Olmert is followed by Likud head Binyamin Netanyahu, or even Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz, it makes sense that he would want to finalize a deal now. Olmert's interests here are also in confluence with those of Rice and Bush, who would like to see some kind of paper documenting what Israel and the Palestinians have agreed upon up until now by the end of 2008, to have something positive to show for their efforts in the region. But this sprint to the finish line is not necessarily in Livni's interests. One of the patterns of Israeli politics that has emerged in recent years is that on the eve of elections the candidates lean right, and then once elected they tilt left. It is hard to believe that Livni, if she does indeed become Kadima's candidate and wants to defeat Netanyahu, would be able to go to an election and win with a shelf agreement with the Palestinians that includes significant Israeli concessions. So while Olmert may be interested in concluding such an agreement now to "save" his legacy, Livni has other political interests that will come into play. The question, to a large extent, will not be whether the Palestinians could agree with Olmert on some kind of document, but whether Olmert's own partners - particularly Livni - would support it. On the Syrian track, Olmert has an interest in seeing the current indirect talks turn into direct ones, also as a way of perhaps earning himself positive citation in the history books. However, his problem here is less Livni and more Syrian President Bashar Assad. Assad surely follows the Israeli political scene and must realize that a lame duck prime minister will never be able to deliver the thing Assad wants most from Israel - the Golan Heights. So why make progress with Olmert? Assad, for his own purposes, is interested in continuing the indirect talks, because they have already given him some positive press abroad. But it is almost impossible to imagine him breaking off ties with Hamas, Hizbullah and Iran to make a deal with an Israeli prime minister who likely won't be around come next summer. That sentiment will also likely characterize the rest of the world in its dealing with Olmert: Leaders and statesmen will go through the motions with Olmert, but will likely look at him in much the same way as they look at Bush - not someone in a position to make long-term, far-reaching commitments anymore.