Diplomacy: The prince of tides

Olmert is riding the wave until the release of Schalit - and the release of the Winograd interim report.

olmert the look 298 (photo credit: )
olmert the look 298
(photo credit: )
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is the moon that governs the tide of Middle East diplomatic activity. When she visits the region, activity flows; when she is absent, it ebbs. Rice's visit at the end of March was a catalyst for a wave of diplomatic activity. All of a sudden there was diplomatic motion - the so-called Arab Quartet met with her in Cairo, the original Quartet spoke by phone, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas agreed to meet biweekly. Though nothing substantial changed on the ground - Gilad Schalit remained in captivity, Kassam rockets continued to fall, Hamas did not accept the Quartet's three criteria, Abbas did not prove more capable of delivering, Olmert's government remained weak - there was suddenly a sense of momentum. That sense was also due in large part to the Arab League summit in Riyadh at the end of March, and the buildup before, which created in the press a sense that something new and dramatic was afoot. That was the flow. Then Rice left, the Arab summit relaunched a plan unacceptable to Israel, Pessah arrived. That constituted the ebb. And, according to diplomatic sources in Jerusalem, we are likely to remain in the ebb until Schalit is released and until after the release of the Winograd Committee's interim report, which is expected before the end of the month and will probably go a long way toward determining Olmert's political fortunes. An interim report by the committee, looking into the handling of the summer's war in Lebanon, that is damning of Olmert's performance could lead to a public outcry that could hasten new elections. But a report in which the prime minister's judgment and performance are not heavily criticized could prolong the days of his government, giving him another chance - if State Comptroller Micah Lindenstrauss' investigations don't catch up with him first - of proving himself to the public. ONE WAY Olmert could possibly boost his sagging ratings would be to engage in something bold with the Saudis. But the Saudis, too, seem to be waiting for Winograd. Rice, who has said she will be paying frequent visits to our region, is not expected to arrive until after the interim report is released, with her next visit scheduled for sometime in mid-May. And her visit will obviously be accompanied, as they so often are, by a spell of diplomatic activity. But Rice is delaying until after Winograd, apparently so she can gauge Olmert's domestic political position. She will be interested in assessing whether it is worth her while to continue exerting energy on Olmert, or whether she should just bide her time, waiting for new elections and a new Israeli leader with whom to start discussions. The Winograd report will also allow her to determine how far she can prod Olmert without tipping him over politically. The Saudis, too, seem to be waiting to see how things play out domestically in Israel before making their next move. Following the Riyadh conference, a decision was made to set up working groups to make contacts with - as the Bahraini foreign minister said - "all influential parties, including Israel, to activate the Arab Peace Initiative." He said this contact would be made within a month, meaning that it would likely take place after the release of the Winograd report. It was not clear who would be in the group charged with contacting Israel, whether it would only include representatives of countries who already have ties with Israel, such as Egypt, Jordan and Qatar, or whether it would include the Saudis as well. A team that includes the Saudis would be a dramatic breakthrough, since Riyadh has always shunned any public contact - indeed any hint of public contact - with Israel. It is doubtful, however, that the super-cautious Saudis would take a step pregnant with such significance in the Arab world if they were not convinced that their Israeli interlocutor, Olmert, would still be the prime minister a few months down the line. For what if they take a step toward Olmert, only to wake up a few months later and find Binyamin Netanyahu in Olmert's chair, not willing, perhaps, to take the same steps they were expecting of his predecessor? Thus the diplomatic ebb, until after Winograd. AN EBB, but not a complete absence of tide. Olmert is not sitting still. Granted, he too is obviously waiting for Winograd, but he must also keep up appearances of business as usual. After all, as he likes to say, there is a country that needs to be governed, business that needs to be tended to. The most pressing business to tend to right now is the awful dilemma of having to decide how many, and which, Palestinians with "blood on their hands" to release in order to free Schalit, differentiating between murderer and murderer. That decision, too, is full of domestic political implications. Because if Olmert is too generous, he could chase coalition partner Avigdor Lieberman away, and if the Winograd report is critical, he will need every coalition partner that he can muster to survive. And amid all this waiting for Winograd, Olmert is scheduled to meet Abbas on Sunday for the first of the Rice-driven twice-monthly meetings with the PA chairman. No sooner had the meeting been announced this week, than different Israeli-Palestinian understandings of what it would entail began to emerge. While Abbas political adviser Nimer Hamad told the Arab media that Abbas would raise contentious final status issues such as Jerusalem, the refuges and final borders, Israeli diplomatic sources said that talks would steer away from those issues and rather deal - in more generic terms - with the overarching characteristics of a future Palestinian state. The philosophy guiding this approach is that if progress is made on how a future Palestinian state might look - its legal system, economy, educational set-up - then it would be easier to deal later with the more difficult core issues. According to Israeli sources, the talks are meant to focus on the characteristics of Palestinian statehood, without delineating where its borders would run, where its capital would be and who would be encouraged to live there. In other words, there will be no discussion of Jerusalem, borders (and by extension settlements) and refugees. But unlike so much else taking place here right now, the reluctance to deal at this time with those issues doesn't have anything to do with waiting for Winograd. Rather, Israel's unwillingness to talk about those issues stems from a feeling that doing so would prompt the collapse of the talks, something that would only invite further violence.