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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
A motley coalition of cynics and extremists were quick to write off the Annapolis peace conference as a waste of time. The best way for Israel to prove them wrong is to show that it knows there is no more time to waste.
If Israel wants to remain a secure and democratic Jewish homeland, it must now set a clear timetable for negotiations with the Palestinians dealing with all final-status issues - borders, refugees and Jerusalem. These have all been discussed before, and PA President Mahmoud Abbas has shown himself to be a serious interlocutor - not for love of Zionism, to be sure, but out of desire to preserve a pragmatic Palestinian policy in the face of Hamas. Our goals are equally self-serving, so there is no question here of "concessions" to a poor partner.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert faces two types of opposition in his cabinet to peace talks. There are those who are reluctant to commit to a framework for a two-state solution with the Palestinians because they cannot countenance compromise on core issues. Then there are those for whom the main problem is in the process of negotiations, those who object to working with Abbas because of his apparent inability to deliver a deal.
But a government's job is not to wallow in analysis. It is to offer a prognosis, especially when the body politic is so beset by chronic ills.
Olmert must decide which of his cabinet colleagues share his belief in the need to keep Israel both democratic and Jewish, and which are really ultra-nationalists anchored to the tragic anachronism that is Greater Israel. The latter group must go; mainstream Israelis will take their place.
As for Abbas - yes, he is weak, and yes, there is no telling whether Hamas might follow its June takeover of Gaza with a similar coup in the West Bank. But one thing is certain: Israel's current course of "boosting" him through tactical gestures such as small arms shipments and limited prisoner amnesties is purely palliative. What Abbas needs from Israel is a strategic shift that will empower him far beyond guns. What he needs is to be able to tell his people that there is a solid, agreed-upon plan for a Palestinian state alongside Israel, a diplomatic horizon seen through the smoke of six years' violence.
Nothing scares Hamas more than the idea of a meaningful Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Hamas, like its parallels Iran and Hizbullah, draws power from being chronically convinced in its historic victimhood and right to violence. Talks between Olmert and Abbas that would promise a secure Palestine would put Hamas into a ranting retreat.
If nothing else, Annapolis showed the depth to which the Middle East's pragmatic players want engagement with Israel and Abbas in order to strengthen regional security and off-set Iran's spreading influence. Who would have imagined a day when Syria and Saudi Arabia would share a conference space with the Jewish state while their longtime proxy Hamas was excluded?
This consensus is an enormous asset that Israel must not squander, lest it fall apart in a pool of cynicism. The pan-Arab enthusiasm for an Israeli-Palestinian accord could be translated into gains for the Olmert government on the ground - for example, keeping West Bank settlement blocs under an equitable land swap with Abbas' administration.
And as for those who would dismiss Bush as a lame-duck president - keep in mind that he has twice the time left in office as his predecessor Clinton did when he convened the 2000 Camp David summit. The Bush administration has shown its sincere concern for Israel's security by passing a $30 billion military aid package over the next decade, a deal designed to weather any change in foreign policy that comes with the next president. Bush can similarly be a party to a lasting peace - if Israel and the Palestinians do what is necessary to bring it about.
Annapolis proved the depth of desire among the Middle East's pragmatic players to see a meaningful peace process under way
This is not about "concessions" to a weak Abu Mazen, nor about yielding in the face of Hamas's spreading influence - indeed, there is nothing Hamas fears more than serious peace talks.
We are at a critical junction. Do we have the ability to move forward with the peace process in an attempt to reach an agreement? Or would miss the opportunity and wake up in a few years to witness how Hamas takes over.
The writer is minister-without-portfolio in Olmert's government and a member of the Labor party
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