Analysis: Pushing the peace process

For the international community, the days of waiting are over.

For the international community, the days of waiting are over. It's now time, once again, to talk about a "Middle East peace process." Forget that Hamas now leads the Palestinian Authority. Forget that the organization, while taking baby steps in the direction of recognizing Israel and accepting previous agreements, but not forswearing terrorism, has not come close to meeting the Quartet's requirements for international legitimacy. None of that matters. What matters is that after six months of waiting, of uncertainty, now the two sides have finally chosen starting line-ups, and the cheering crowd - the international community - wants them to play for peace. The only problem is that it appears the two sides are playing different sports. Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, in his acceptance speech early Wednesday morning, spoke of coming to grips with reality, compromising on dreams, uprooting Jews from some settlements and negotiating with the Palestinians. He was talking figure skating. Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, in his speech before the PLC Monday, spoke of dealing with previous agreements with Israel in a "responsible" manner, pursuing the "right of return without compromise" and "continuing the struggle against the settlements and the fence and to establish an independent state with Jerusalem as its capital." He was talking rugby. But what really matters is that the crowd - the world - has paid its admission, is in the arena and wants to see a match. After months of a diplomatic off-season, it's now time to "play ball." This became apparent Wednesday when a BBC British Five Live Radio presenter, addressing the Israeli elections, asked a guest on her program, "Where do the elections leave the peace progress?" An absurd question, really, when one considers that Hamas is in charge of the Palestinian side and is not exactly talking about a "peace process." But it is a question Israelis should now get re-accustomed to hearing. And it is a question with a hidden meaning: What is Israel going to do to make the peace process happen? After months of waiting to see how everything would play out in the elections here, the Quartet (US, EU, Russia and the UN) is chomping at the bit to see diplomatic progress. With this urge to see progress will come the inevitable request for Israel to make gestures towards the Palestinians so Hamas can move closer to the world's benchmarks for its legitimacy. Before the elections neither the US nor Europe wanted to make these demands, worried how they would play out during Israel's campaign. But now the election shackles are off. EU Commissioner for External Relations Benita Ferrero-Waldner issued a statement Wednesday saying that the elections were "important for Israel, for the Middle East and for Europe... Taken together with the recent Palestinian elections, the vote in Israel will have a shaping influence on the prospects for moving towards a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The EU as a member of the Quartet stands ready to work with the new Israeli government to promote security and peace for Israelis and Palestinians alike." That's diplomatic code for "get ready guys, we're coming." EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana phoned Olmert Wednesday and, according to a statement he put out, "encouraged Mr. Olmert to pursue all efforts to move towards a peaceful, negotiated resolution of the Middle East conflict. I assured him that the European Union stands ready, as always, to offer all its support in this process." And, don't forget, the two top US Middle East negotiators, Elliott Abrams and David Welch, who arrived Wednesday night to hold a round of meetings with both sides and try to breathe life into the road map that the US still sees as viable. Olmert understands what the world wants, and in his victory speech Wednesday morning, astutely gave the international community what he thought it wanted to hear. "Out of a recognition of reality and an understanding of the circumstances, we are willing to compromise, to give up on parts of the beloved Land of Israel, where the best of our sons and fighters are buried, and - with great pain - to evacuate the Jews who live there, in order to create the conditions that will make it possible for you [the Palestinians] to realize your dreams and to live next to us, in your own state, in peace and harmony." If the Palestinians are willing to show an equal aptitude for giving up their dreams and compromising, Olmert said, then the two sides can sit around a table and negotiate. If not, Israel will act in their absence. "We will not wait forever," he said. Neither will the world. But whereas Olmert will not wait forever before taking unilateral steps, the world will not wait forever before trying to push the sides back to the road map to forestall those steps. While the election results showed that a majority of Israelis had, for the most part, accepted Olmert's plan for further disengagements, the world has not yet signed on that dotted line, and still favors bilateralism and negotiations. The international community has waited for months until after the Israeli and Palestinian elections to promote Israeli-Palestinian bilateralism. Now it's hungry for movement, and the Quartet's pushing - some of it gentle, some less so - will be one type of movement Israel will surely feel soon after Olmert forms his government.•