Analysis: Olmert's speech: Old wine, new bottle

The vision that Olmert laid out Monday is not in Israel's hands; it depends on the Palestinians.

olmert abbas gr8 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
olmert abbas gr8 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
At first listen, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's speech Monday in Sde Boker seemed the stuff of great diplomatic drama. There, at the grave of David Ben-Gurion, Olmert was extending his hand in friendship to the Palestinians. There, invoking the name of Israel's first prime minister, he was declaring an end to the dream of Eretz Yisrael Ha'Shlema (Greater Israel) and a willingness to remove numerous settlements. There, at the tomb of the country's founder, he was agreeing to the establishment of a viable Palestinian state in much of the West Bank and all of Gaza. All headline grabbing material. Except that none of the aforementioned was particularly new; it was all said in the past either by Olmert's predecessor, Ariel Sharon, or by Olmert himself. Then why the sense of drama surrounding the speech? Because of the timing. Olmert's speech was catching not so much because of what it entailed - stage two of the road map, for instance, promises the Palestinians the state that Olmert described Monday - but rather because of when it was delivered. Olmert's speech came at a time when the region, thanks to the fanaticism of key players like Iran, Hizbullah and Hamas, seems perched on the edge of an abyss. The speech came as unrelenting Palestinian terrorism and the war in Lebanon have drained most Israelis of hope in finding a "diplomatic solution" and as most Israelis have made the mental shift from the belief that any one Israeli diplomatic maneuver will lead to peace, to a feeling that what is now necessary is simply to hunker down and hope the wave somehow passes. And it is precisely in this atmosphere that Olmert dug down and touched the Shimon Peres inside him and dared talk about a vision of two states living amiably side by side - if only. And therein lies the rub. The vision that Olmert laid out Monday is not in Israel's hands; it depends on the Palestinians. "If a new Palestinian government is established - a government which will be committed to the principles of the Quartet, implement the road map and bring about the release of Gilad Shalit, I will invite Abu-Mazen [PA chairman Mahmoud Abbas] to meet with me immediately, in order to conduct a real, open, genuine and serious dialogue between us," Olmert said. But that's a big if. "I hereby declare that when Gilad Shalit is released and returned to his family, safe and sound, the government of Israel will be willing to release numerous Palestinian prisoners - including ones who were sentenced to lengthy prison terms - in order to increase the trust between us and prove that our hand is truly extended in genuine peace," he said. But that's a big if. It the Palestinians "stop the terror, violence and efforts to harm Israeli citizens, recognize our right to live in peace and security next to you, and relinquish your demand for the realization of the right of return," then Israel, Olmert promised the Palestinians, would "agree to the evacuation of many territories and communities which were established therein." But that's a big if. With an impatient world increasingly clamoring at Israel's doorstep for a new initiative, this type of speech seemed meant to buy breathing room. When the world complains about the violence and instability in the region, Olmert can now say, "Look, I am willing to go a long way towards the Palestinians. I'm willing to uproot more settlements, recognize a Palestinian state, release Palestinians prisoners, and all they have to do is end terrorism and renounce their demand for the right of refugee return." All that, however, would have been a tall and unobtainable order were Abbas actually in charge in the PA. But now with Hamas calling the shots all that seems patently unachievable. But still, voices have been raised calling for a new initiative, saying that if Israel did not initiate something new, then other plans would be jammed down its throat. Olmert presented a plan Monday, a plan that - while not necessarily new - brought various elements together in a new package. For instance, Olmert spoke in the past about the positive role Saudi Arabia has been playing of late, but Monday was one of the only times an Israeli prime minister has praised even part of Saudi Arabia's 2002 diplomatic initiative by name. Olmert has said in the past that he would be willing to release Palestinian prisoners after Shalit was let go, but this was the first time he included in that definition prisoners serving long sentences. And even though Olmert made clear after the summer's war in Lebanon that he was shelving the realignment plan that he ran on during the last elections, this was the first time that he seemed to completely throw unilaterailsm out the window. Gone was his rhetoric of May and June that Israel would like to negotiate with the Palestinians, but couldn't wait forever, and that if a true partner didn't emerge, then Israel would decide on its own what was in its own best interest and set its borders accordingly. Replace that now with Olmert's comments about negotiation with Abbas "in order to conduct a real, open, genuine and serious dialogue between us." "In the framework of this dialogue," Olmert said, "and in accordance with the road map, you will be able to establish an independent and viable Palestinian State, with territorial contiguity in Judea and Samaria - a state with full sovereignty and defined borders." Fifteen months after the unilateral disengagement from Gaza, and three months after the summer's war that stemmed, to a large degree, from Israel's unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, unilateralism - even as a last resort - is no longer in Olmert's vocabulary. Despite Olmert's dramatic talk about a Palestinian state, removing settlements, freeing prisoners and living in harmony side-by-side, the newest element in his speech on Monday was the complete absence or even hint of unilateralism.