Palestinian Affairs: The strength of weakness

Many Palestinians now see Olmert's legal troubles as working to their advantage.

Abbas olmert walk 224.88 (photo credit: GPO)
Abbas olmert walk 224.88
(photo credit: GPO)
The chances of achieving a breakthrough in the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks before the end of the year are as remote as ever. This is how top Palestinian Authority officials in Ramallah responded this week to the latest developments surrounding the police probe into allegations that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had received large sums of money from American businessman Morris Talansky. Shortly after Defense Minister Ehud Barak said that Olmert couldn't continue to run the affairs of the country, the PA officials said it was clear that the political crisis in Israel was heading toward escalation. "Although we consider the latest developments in Israel to be an internal Israeli affair, there is no ignoring the negative impact on the peace process," declared an adviser to PA President Mahmoud Abbas. "We are very concerned about the crisis, because the peace process will have to wait until after new elections in Israel." Abbas and his aides believe that even if Olmert remains in power for the next few weeks or months, he would not be able to strike an historic deal with the Palestinians. "Olmert is very weak because of the corruption scandals," said one aide. "We doubt if he would be able to sell any agreement with the Palestinians to the Israeli public, especially if the agreement includes making major territorial concessions." Not that the talks between the Israelis and Palestinians have achieved much over the past few months. Since the Annapolis peace conference late last year, the two sides have been conducting public and secret talks almost on a weekly basis in a bid to reach an agreement on all the sticking issues before the end of US President George W. Bush's term in office. While Olmert and some of his ministers have been talking about "significant progress" in the negotiations, PA officials continue to insist that the gap between the two parties remains very wide. Olmert and Abbas have met more than a dozen times since the Annapolis conference, while Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and the head of the PA negotiating team, Ahmed Qurei, are continuing to meet almost once a week. The two sides, PA officials point out, are under intense pressure from the Bush administration to reach some kind of a deal before the end of this year. "Bush and [US Secretary of State] Condoleezza Rice are expecting at least a declaration of principles that would form the basis for a future peace treaty between Israel and Palestine," one official said. "They are talking about giving us less than 90 percent of the West Bank and only parts of east Jerusalem." According to the Palestinians, the future status of Jerusalem, the problem of the refugees and the borders of the future Palestinian state are only some of the major obstacles that have prevented progress at the negotiating table. The real problem lies in the fact that there is no Palestinian leader today who would be able to accept anything less than what Yasser Arafat rejected at the botched Camp David summit in the summer of 2000. Then, according to Israelis who participated in the talks, Arafat was offered more than 90% of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, in addition to the Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem. Abbas is also seen by many Palestinians as a weak and uncharismatic leader. Even worse, he is being held responsible for the fact that the Palestinians are today more divided than ever. His failure to encourage reforms in the ruling Fatah faction and his failure to solve the crisis with Hamas have damaged his image as a strong leader. Abbas has promised to bring any agreement he achieves with Israel to a referendum. But, given the fact that he has no control over the Gaza Strip or the refugee camps in neighboring Arab countries, it's hard to see how such a referendum could be held. Besides, there is a high probability that a majority of Palestinians would say no to a deal that does not give them 100% of their demands. "Both Olmert and Abbas are too weak at this stage to reach an agreement," said a Palestinian newspaper editor in Ramallah. "Neither of them would be able to sell an agreement to his people." He and other Palestinians are convinced that neither Olmert nor Abbas will remain in power for too long. Abbas's term in office expires in January 2009, and it's unclear at this stage whether he would be able, under the current circumstances - where the Gaza Strip is an Islamic state controlled by Hamas - to hold presidential elections. On the other hand, Abbas is facing growing pressure from many Fatah leaders to step down and pave the way for younger figures to rise to power. Similarly, his prime minister, Salaam Fayad, is facing a Fatah-led campaign to limit his powers and turn his cabinet into a pawn in the hands of Fatah operatives. Some PA officials were initially concerned that the resumption of peace talks between Israel and Syria would mean "sidelining" the Palestinian issue. But they were quick to endorse the widely believed assumption in Israel that Olmert was merely seeking to divert attention from the police inquiry against him by making a dramatic announcement about the possibility of reaching a peace treaty with Syria. Furthermore, by the end of the week, the Palestinians' fears began to fade as they realized that Syrian President Bashar Assad was not in a rush to cut off his ties with Iran, Hizbullah and Hamas. Now that the Syrian track does not appear to be going anywhere, at least not in the coming months, some PA officials expect Olmert to focus his efforts on achieving some kind of a deal with the PA - also in an attempt to divert attention from the police probe and his troubles at home. They argue that, in any case, a declaration of principles - or a "framework agreement" - would not be too bad, particularly if it includes recognition of the Palestinians' demands regarding Jerusalem, settlements, borders and refugees. Livni, Barak, Binyamin Netanyahu or whoever succeeds Olmert won't be able to ignore such an agreement, and will have to negotiate with the Palestinians on the basis of the understandings. That's perhaps why the PA leadership does not seem to be very worried about who will succeed Olmert.