Analysis: Formidable challenges

For all Olmert's patent reinvigoration and confidence, this process represents a significant gamble.

olmert abbas whisper 224 (photo credit: AP)
olmert abbas whisper 224
(photo credit: AP)
As Ehud Barak, Tzipi Livni, Saeb Erekat and other Israeli and Palestinian notables walked out into the White House Rose Garden on Wednesday afternoon to hear a statement from US President George W. Bush summarizing the past few days' diplomacy, Barak looked around for directions on where exactly to stand. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was immediately behind him. "I think we should move down a little," she advised, pointing the small group of politicians and officials to a patch of grass to the side of the press pack. Dutifully following her lead, Barak responded: "You show us the way." In his subsequent brief remarks, Bush vowed that America would do everything it could to help Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and their teams make a success of the resumed diplomatic process. But although Rice was the prime mover in the convening of the Annapolis talks, America is not now going to be "showing the way" forward for the Israelis and the Palestinians. It will be refereeing implementation of the road map, but the parties themselves, both of which were heading back home overnight, will have to make the key decisions along the obstacle-strewn diplomatic path themselves. Both sides pronounce themselves satisfied with the first, small steps taken so far. The Palestinians may have needed moderate American encouragement to sign off on the Annapolis joint understanding, but they are privately well-pleased that it contained no reference to the April 2004 letter sent by Bush to prime minister Ariel Sharon that is interpreted by Israel as indicating American support for Israeli maintenance of major settlement blocs. Nor, to their satisfaction, does the joint document include any reference to Israel as the Jewish state. Olmert had said that Palestinian recognition of Israel's Jewish character was an essential foundation to post-Annapolis negotiation. For his part, Olmert, briefing Israeli journalists before leaving Washington for the journey home, was positively radiating contentment. Annapolis had not "changed the face of history," he said, but then it wasn't supposed to. It had relaunched Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy, in the presence of a supportive Arab world, under the auspices of a committed American administration. It might indeed be possible to reach an accord within a year, and every effort would be made to do so, but if it took longer, so be it. He had spoken with every candidate to succeed George Bush, he said, and they were all supportive and well-disposed to Israel. What was critical, Olmert said, was that it had been made explicit at Annapolis that, even if a deal were done, it could not and would not be implemented so long as terrorism raged. And he said he had "no reason to fear" that the American refereeing of road map implementation would be anything other than scrupulous and fair. Israel, he pledged, would "fully" implement its road map responsibilities - which include a complete halt to settlement construction - and he was sure his coalition would hold together as it did so. As for Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, he said, either it would come early in the process or at the end, but there could be no peace agreement on any other basis. Yet for all Olmert's patent reinvigoration and brimming confidence - "with my typical modesty, I must say the coalition is being very well run," he remarked at one point - this relaunched process represents a significant gamble. If what now follows is a genuine, concerted Palestinian effort to marginalize extremists and end the relentless incitement against Israel, then the Israeli public and his political colleagues will support him as he begins that obligatory road-map implementation. He said Wednesday he believed the majority of Israelis strongly backed his diplomatic moves, but support will dissipate if the Kassams keep falling and if Fatah extremists keep killing Israelis on the roads of the West Bank. And bitter experience shows that an intensified peace effort produces intensified efforts by murderous opponents to derail it. Tellingly, moreover, Israel cannot decide for itself that the Palestinians are not keeping their side of the bargain, and that diplomacy's implementation will have to wait. For under the terms of the Annapolis process, Israel is no longer the sole arbiter of whether its vital security needs are being sufficiently met.