Analyze This: One week later

Gaza rockets and coalition defections dim the 'vision track.'

olmert bush 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
olmert bush 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
Remember that visit US President George W. Bush paid us back in - umm, when was it exactly? Last month? Last year? Last century? Surely it was not just last week, though. After all, those were the distant days of yore when the president was certain that the leaders of Israel and the Palestinian Authority would not get "bogged down in the moment" by such things as rocket attacks from Gaza and settlement issues, and "lose sight of the potential for a historic agreement;" when Bush expressed certainty that the peace process could move forward while Gaza remained under Hamas rule because its people would eventually choose a "vision" of democracy and peace; and when he thought he could rely on Israel Beiteinu's Avigdor Lieberman and Shas's Eli Yishai to "take care of Olmert, so he will stay in power." These days, the Bush visit, and the rhetoric it engendered, all seem like so much yesterday's news - following the first successful Palestinian shooting of a civilian on Israeli territory from over the Gaza border fence; wave after wave of Kassams falling on Sderot and environs, and an IDF raid to stop them that resulted in heavy Palestinian casualties. On the political front there were PA officials condemning Israel's response as a "massacre" and saying it threatens the negotiations and Lieberman and Israel Beiteinu's resignation from the government, with Shas threatening to follow them out of the coalition if the talks touch on the Jerusalem issue. Just one week later, the underlying conception that negotiations in the various post-Annapolis tracks could move toward a final-status agreement unimpeded by concurrent events unfolding on the ground here looks increasingly outdated. Very quickly, it appears that, to use the president's phrase, we are getting bogged down in the moment. When Bush expressed confidence that a final-status agreement could be reached in just a years' time, the immediate reaction among analysts was that the deadline was unrealistic because it was set too soon. Now, given the speed at which the situation is deteriorating, that date may be much too late. Considering developments here this week from Washington's perspective, there are at least two adjustments to its diplomatic game-plan that are seriously worth considering. The first is the idea that the current situation in Gaza can simply be allowed to continue, or even be contained, until Israel and the Palestinians reach agreement on its future somewhere down the road. Unfortunately, under present circumstances, the security situation in and around Gaza seems certain to escalate. As Hamas and the other radical Islamic groups continue to fire more and more rockets, the likelihood increases that, sooner or later, one will cause major Israeli casualties. This would provoke a truly heavy, lengthy and costly IDF response well beyond that of this week, and it is hard to believe that wouldn't impact on the negotiations, or even bring them to a halt. A change of thinking is clearly going to be needed to deal with the Gaza problem if it is not going to derail all of the various peace tracks set in motion during the past few months. The Americans may well have to start considering some of the more out-of-the-box proposals that have been suggested - such as the introduction of an international force into Gaza - rather than wait for an eventual "vision of democracy" that may never materialize. The other problem that intensified this week was the weakening of the Olmert coalition with Israel Beiteinu's departure, and with it any confidence this government is not only strong and stable enough to discuss the "core issues" of a final-status agreement, but even make major concessions on them. As reported in this paper, the PM's intention to hold off discussions on Jerusalem in order to keep Shas from also bolting is already a step back from the confident declarations he and the president made that all issues would now be put on the table. And all this, keep in mind, is even before the Olmert government has absorbed the expected blow to come from the release of the final Winograd Report at month's end. Again, the American sponsors of the talks might do well to readjust their ambitious agenda of last week, and reconsider earlier proposals to first reach some kind of interim agreement between Israelis and Palestinians that holds off on the toughest issues - in particular the status of Jerusalem - until there are Israeli and Palestinian governments that can seriously consider the matter and sell it to their respective publics. When he departed Jerusalem last Friday, President Bush assured all he would stay engaged with the peace process, perhaps returning if necessary. His next trip here, though, isn't scheduled until May, just in time to join in Israel's 60th anniversary celebrations. But if there are many more such weeks before then, it's hard to say who in the government here Bush will have to officially mark that event with - and just what exactly there will be to celebrate in terms of a post-Annapolis peace process off to a shaky start.