Branded an incompetent failure last spring by the Winograd Committee's interim report on the Second Lebanon War, told publicly by his foreign minister that he ought to resign, and since further discredited by the opening of three criminal investigations into alleged financial improprieties, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is nonetheless rising in the polls.
Not, it should be stressed, rising high, but moving inexorably out of the abysmal single figures of a few months ago and on through the teens. This is not because the Israeli public is slowly learning to love its prime minister. And though there may be a grudging admiration in some quarters for his sheer bloody-minded determination to retain a job that so much of his electorate so plainly regrets giving him, that's not the secret of his slow float upward in the polls, either.
It is, rather, a consequence of Israelis' near-desperate desire for peace - or, more accurately, for a means to sever our connection to the Palestinians. Having concluded years ago that the conflict that had so obsessed his predecessor was unsolvable for the foreseeable future, US President George W. Bush has now U-turned and is engaged in a last-ditch, end-of-second-term bid to secure progress. And since Olmert is making discernible efforts to crown this improbable mission with glory, a proportion of the Israeli public, as so often in the past, is apparently willing to suspend its disbelief, put aside the bitter skepticism born of brutal experience, and give Olmert its backing.
With each passing year, the strategy of delegitimizing Israel by depicting it as the recalcitrant holdout against viable compromise with the Palestinians gains more adherents. It was hugely boosted by Yasser Arafat's post-Camp David peddling of a mendacious account of Israeli rejectionism, is now the dominant narrative in most of Europe and, thanks to the efforts of Messrs. Carter, Walt, Mearsheimer et al, is taking an ever-greater grip in the United States as well. (The campaign is enhanced by the rewriting of Middle Eastern history, notably by Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to present the establishment and maintenance of the modern State of Israel not as the belated restoration of an ancient sovereign power, but as the implantation of an alien and intransigent entity imposed on a blameless Arab world in order to salve Europe's Holocaust-scarred conscience.)
In truth, however, mainstream Israel is prepared to go to extraordinary lengths, and contemplate extraordinary risks, in the cause of a viable separation. When Ehud Barak returned from Camp David seven years ago, having offered to relinquish far more territory than he had previously intimated and to concede a sovereign Palestinian role in Jerusalem, he was met with greater demonstrations of support than denunciation. Since then, Israel has risked rending its own social fabric to drag 8,000 Jews out of their homes in Gaza without even the cover of an accord, and would have reelected Ariel Sharon, with his unstated blueprint for a likely withdrawal from 90 percent of the West Bank, had his own failed health not intervened.
Now the Olmert government is publicly contemplating the previously unthinkable notion of a 100% West Bank pullout, with one-for-one land-swap adjustments to maintain the larger settlement blocs. Like Barak before him, the prime minister is openly questioning Israel's need for a united Jerusalem that takes in the Arab neighborhoods. And the peace-parched Israeli public's response is less hysterical opposition than gentle encouragement in the shape of an upturn in the prime ministerial personal popularity ratings.
Of all the "final status" issues, it is only on the question of refugees that the government, and public opinion, are holding firm, rejecting the national suicide inherent in a capitulation to the notion of a "right of return" to Israel for millions of Palestinians. Barely 20 years ago, mainstream Israeli public opinion resisted the very idea of Palestinian statehood. Today, the only substantive Israeli objection to a Palestinian state is that it not be achieved, whether by violence or demographics, at the expense of ours.
Here is where Mahmoud Abbas and the "moderate Arab states" might be expected to make their voices heard, to mirror the energetic ideas for compromise being floated by the government's indefatigable trial balloonists with conciliatory scripts of their own, most especially on the refugee issue. And yet, mere weeks before the scheduled convening of the Annapolis summit, from the Palestinian side there is only silence.
THE PALESTINIAN academic Sari Nusseibeh, formerly Arafat's PLO representative, observed famously some years ago that the primary right that the Palestinians should be seeking was the right to freedom, and that this right took precedence over the claim to a "right of return." Indeed, he argued that the paramount right to freedom would never be achieved so long as their leadership insisted that millions of refugee descendants be granted permission to live within the sovereign borders of the State of Israel.
At a large gathering of Middle East politicians, academics, businesspeople and others, a senior Egyptian minister once assured me that the Arab world in general, and the Palestinian leadership in particular, recognized all this, and that the wording of the Arab peace initiatives now being advanced, with their references to an "agreed" solution to the refugee issue, represented the formal reflection of this shift. That word "agreed," he said, indicated that Israel's needs would have to be satisfied in the determination on the fate of the refugees.
And yet today, even while Iran terrifies the likes of Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia by seeking nuclear clout to reinforce its Islamist ambitions, and as the Islamist Hamas cements its hold on Gaza and looks to repeat the feat in the West Bank at Fatah's expense, neither the moderate Arab leaders, nor Abbas, have been able to bring themselves to make this critical compromise explicit and thus begin to pave a constructive road forward. A road forward that would help save their own regimes by proving the emptiness of the extremists' bleak vision.
This week, for instance, Abbas has been touring Muslim states in Asia, and expressing optimism about Annapolis yielding "a concrete outcome that is going to be positive for our people." In the run-up to the conference, he has been confirming, Israeli and Palestinian teams are working on a document that will cover the key final status issues, the refugees included. What he has notably not said, however, is that he is ready to endorse anything similar to Nusseibeh's formulation.
Though Abbas is regarded by his Israeli interlocutors as both well-intentioned and committed to a viable two-state solution, the sad fact is that, since succeeding Arafat, he has not proved this. As the first serious stab at peacemaking since the disaster at Camp David seven years ago looms, he, like Arafat in 2000, has chosen not to prepare his people for compromise. He has not made explicit that an accommodation will require concessions on both sides, chiefly including the abandonment of the refugee demand. Unlike Arafat, Abbas has not actively fostered terrorism, but nor has he moved decisively to delegitimize and thwart it.
He has intermittently and half-heartedly opposed the Kassam rocket crews, and he has taken very public and very personal offense at Hamas's alleged efforts to assassinate him. But overall, Abbas's term as Palestinian No. 1 has to date been a litany of loss, humiliation and, above all, inactivity. He is the Palestinian leader who rearranged the deck chairs as the Fatah ship went down.
He lost half his kingdom to Hamas; he lost his parliament to Hamas; he failed to reform Fatah and thus reverse the Palestinian public's disillusion with his party that so helped Hamas; he failed to curb terrorism even within his own Fatah ranks; he failed to stand decisively against incitement to terrorism in his education system and in his media, and he failed to publicly endorse positions that would render a peace process viable and restore more than a modicum of Israeli faith in the notion of a Palestinian partnership.
Israel is not without blame for the pitiful performance of the Palestinian president. Leaving Gaza, though bitterly traumatic, was viewed across most of the political spectrum, deep into the Likud, as vital to Israel's long-term demographic interests. But beating a unilateral retreat from the Strip, rather than coordinating with the far-from-ideal Abbas, meant that the withdrawal was understood by the Palestinians as a vindication of terrorism. Similarly, denying calls from Abbas for prisoner releases, but countenancing large-scale asymmetrical prisoner exchanges with the ruthless extortionists of Hizbullah, represented further reward for hostility and a veritable disincentive to compromise.
IT IS not too late, however, for Abbas, and the scheduled convening of the summit at Annapolis represents a perfect opportunity - an opportunity to salvage the beginnings of constructive progress from the engulfing waves of extremism.
It is not too late for Abbas, with the support of the purported Arab moderates, to publicly counter Ahmadinejed's rewriting of three millennia of Jewish history and to publicly acknowledge the Jewish historical right to our revived sovereign Middle East homeland. It is not too late for him to endorse the notion of a two-state solution in which Israel is explicitly defined and recognized as the Jewish state. It is not too late for him to publicly stress to his own people that they will never achieve freedom if it is predicated on the demographic destruction of Israel, and that, therefore, the refugee issue will have to be resolved without a "return." (There could be no better exemplar of compromise than the man who was himself born in Safed.)
It is not too late for Abbas, in short, to challenge his own people to forego impossible demands in the cause of an accommodation from which they will be the primary beneficiaries.
For him personally, such a course would be risky. He would be putting his life on the line. But those who wish to lead their peoples to better futures, those who seek and take on the responsibility of leadership, must be prepared to stand firm in the face of extremism, at whatever personal risk... as reemphasized only days ago by the vicious terrorist attack on the undaunted Pakistani leader Benazir Bhutto and by the terrible anniversary we in Israel marked this week.
And it's not as though Abbas would be short of friends worldwide anxious to help him steer his people to that better future - to steer the Palestinians toward statehood by setting up a competent judicial authority, effective institutions of government and capable security forces. At present, the prospect of the Palestinian Authority taking responsibility for territory that might be relinquished by Israel is a bad joke. Israel cannot contemplate any such transfer of power - in areas, remember, that are within easy rocket range of Ben-Gurion Airport and the entire heartland of our country - so long as the phrase "Palestinian Authority security force" remains an oxymoron.
Abbas, if he were to seize the moment, would be able to accurately depict his push for moderation as a necessary move to marginalize Hamas and its Iranian extremist paymasters, and to counter the coercion and repression, autocracy and inequality of the Islamist vision that Hamas is gradually introducing into Gaza.
The likes of Egypt, Jordan and some in Saudi Arabia and beyond, terrified by the emboldening of Teheran, should rush to back Abbas and support any message of compromise. It is their prime interest, too, to see the rapacious Islamists thwarted. Palestinian self-interest requires that Abbas follow this course. Non-Islamist Arab self-interest requires it, too.
The impact on the battered, bloodied Israeli psyche would be enormous - quite dwarfing Olmert's current little poll boost from the optimists - even though, it must be stressed, the most dramatic public comments would mark only the beginning of a long road back to sanity. They would represent only the opening words of good intent that would have to be translated into action, notably in a determined, unrelenting assault on terrorism. We've heard many fine words over the years...
Nonetheless, Abbas would serve four sets of interests - Palestinian, Israeli, moderate regional and global - if he severed the line from Arafat, defied Hamas and his own radicals by urging international assistance in the battle against terrorism, and issued an unequivocal public rejection of the refugee "right of return" and an endorsement of Jewish Israel as the first step toward reviving a peace process. A win-win-win-win situation, though pregnant with personal risk.
Do I think Abbas is going to seize the moment - to tell his own people where their true interests lie? I do not. Whether or not he has the inclination, I don't think he has the guts. I hope he'll prove me wrong.
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