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No one can predict with any certainty what will happen tomorrow, let alone next week, but the possibility of continued calm is infinitely preferable to the certainty of violence.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert deserves credit for taking risks for peace. In point of fact, the risks aren't large; if the cease-fire collapses, Israel will have lost nothing.
Nevertheless, it takes some boldness these days for an Israeli leader to actually express faith in the possibility of peace. The majority of Israelis who want negotiations are out-shouted by a right wing that is always eager to shoot down even the slightest chance of a breakthrough.
It is as if the Right feels more threatened by the possibility of negotiations with the Palestinians than by the Palestinians themselves. The very same people who dismiss the Palestinians as feckless and weak quake in their boots at the very idea that Israel's leaders will talk to them.
What are they so scared of? They are afraid that negotiations will lead to a situation in which Israel is somehow forced to accept a bad deal.
This idea seems so outdated, so pre-1948. Powerless people, like the Jews before there was an Israel, perhaps have reason to be wary of negotiations. In 1938 Czechs had every reason to fear negotiations being conducted over their heads by the Germans, Italians, British and French.
But why fear face-to-face negotiations with one's adversary, negotiations in which neither a third party nor either of the two sides can dictate a result?
Ehud Barak negotiated with Yasser Arafat at Camp David in 2000. They did not come to terms, but no one forced Barak to make more concessions than he was prepared to make. Why is the Right so afraid that Israel, once engaged in negotiations, will have no choice but to accept whatever the Palestinians lay on the table?
FORTUNATELY, Olmert is not scared. Like Yitzhak Rabin and Menachem Begin, he is eager to talk to Israel's adversaries, understanding that if no agreement is reached, Israel is strong enough to simply walk out.
As Olmert said when he announced the cease-fire: "The State of Israel is so strong that it can allow itself to hold back, to give a real chance to the cease-fire. After all, a cease-fire is not the supreme goal. It is only a stage in the process which we hope will create the dynamic that will lead to negotiations and dialogue, and perhaps will finally bring about an agreement between us and the Palestinians."
Olmert is serious about negotiations. He seems to have come to the conclusion that the unilateral formula only commits Israel to withdrawal while committing the Palestinians to nothing. A negotiated agreement binds both sides to its terms.
Last week, Olmert delivered a remarkable speech at the kibbutz home of David Ben-Gurion. In it, he spoke directly to the Palestinian people (much as Rabin did at the White House ceremony following the Oslo signing).
Recognizing that the Palestinians are in the process of deciding whether to form a unity government that will pursue a negotiated peace with Israel or continue with the deadly status quo, Olmert urged them to get with the program. "You, the Palestinian people, in the south and east, in the Gaza Strip and Judea and Samaria, stand, these very days, on the threshold of an historic crossroads," he said.
But then, instead of the customary list of demands which Palestinians must fulfill before Israel engages them in negotiations, Olmert told Palestinians what Israel was prepared to do if the Palestinians end violence and establish a new government committed to negotiations with and recognition of Israel.
He said his goal is the establishment of a West Bank-Gaza Palestinian state with full territorial contiguity. For the more immediate future, he offered the release of "numerous Palestinian prisoners" in exchange for Corporal Gilad Shalit. He said Israel will "significantly diminish roadblocks, increase freedom of movement in the territories, facilitate movement of people and goods in both directions, improve the operation of the border crossings to the Gaza Strip, and release Palestinian funds for the purpose of alleviating the humanitarian hardship which many of you suffer."
NATURALLY, NOT everyone in Israel is happy with Olmert's initiative. The Right is, of course, furious. But even a few on the Left say Olmert's move is only a gambit to put the ball in the Palestinians' court, ease international pressure on Israel, and provide the pretext for attacking Gaza hard if the Palestinians do not deliver.
No doubt, there is some truth in that criticism. The ball is now in the Palestinians' court and they will have no one but themselves to blame if the cease-fire - and the process it is designed to kick start - dies on the vine.
But that is not what Olmert wants. He is not Ariel Sharon, whose vision of Israel's future was so opaque that no outsider really knew if the goal of his unilateral Gaza withdrawal was to advance negotiations or deter them.
Olmert's vision of Israel's future is clear. He wants to bring an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in order to allow Israel to achieve normalcy. He is not religious and does not talk about the specialness of the Jewish people or its unique mission in the world. On the contrary, Olmert simply wants to see an Israel that is at peace - prosperous and secure. While some Israelis would shrink from the prospect of an Israel that resembles a Middle Eastern Norway, Olmert would welcome it.
And the fact is that so would the overwhelming majority of Israelis. As for the Palestinians, they are desperate to live ordinary lives.
"A state like any other." That is what Theodor Herzl wanted for the Jews. But they won't have one unless the Palestinians do. Olmert understands that.
And that is why he announced his initiative. Hopefully, it will succeed. If it doesn't, there will be more violence, more dead on both sides, and then another attempt at negotiating an end to the conflict. The sooner the negotiations start, the fewer Israelis and Palestinians will die in a war that cannot be won.
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