Critical Currents: Fear of talking

The Olmert government has responded condescendingly to repeated Palestinian calls for negotiations.

naomi chazan 88 (photo credit: )
naomi chazan 88
(photo credit: )
The government took barely six hours to decide to attack Lebanon on July 12, 2006. Yet a full six years have gone by since any Israeli leader has made a serious attempt to talk with the country's neighbors. This inexplicable foot-dragging flies in the face not only of rising regional and international currents; it defies the wishes of the majority of Israelis. The Olmert government has responded dismissively to Syrian overtures, warily to the approaches of moderate Arab states and condescendingly to repeated Palestinian calls for a resumption of negotiations. The prime minister's recent meetings with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak are studies in reluctant ambiguity. Official Israel, despite some efforts on the part of Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, remains locked in a rejectionist stance. This evasiveness makes little sense substantively, diplomatically or politically. It is creating another, almost unbridgeable, gap between the Israeli public and its present leadership. The ongoing disarray in the PA territories, the aftershock of the Lebanese imbroglio, the American Iraqi conundrum and the specter of a nuclear Iran have combined to induce a renewed push for an Israeli-Palestinian accord with a view toward achieving a broader understanding with moderate Arab states. These initiatives emanate not only from external sources; they have deep - and robust - domestic roots. An astute leadership would do well to listen to these voices and act on their message. The objective of any negotiated settlement is clearer to most Israelis today than ever before. According to the latest poll conducted by the Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace and the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah, a solid majority favors a two-state solution and accepts the complex package such an accord entails. There is a sober and consistent willingness to discuss withdrawal to the 1967 lines with adjustments by agreement, the creation of two capitals for two states in Jerusalem, a just resolution for Palestinian refugees and lasting security arrangements. Unlike at the outset of the Oslo process, there are no illusions about the contours of the endgame of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Progressively wider segments of Israeli society have internalized its details. THESE INSIGHTS have been slow in percolating up to decision-making circles. The beleaguered and indecisive Olmert government appears stuck in the conceptual mindset of yesteryear. However, it cannot now excuse its inaction (as its predecessors frequently did) by evoking domestic constraints. On the contrary, many Israelis expect their government to move forward in a very clear direction. The procedure for attaining this goal is also evident to most citizens: close to 60 percent want negotiations on a comprehensive settlement now (81% of Palestinians concur). They prefer discussions on outstanding final-status issues, consciously shunning further interim measures. The phased approach, embedded in the Oslo agreements and the road map, has little traction on the ground. Patience is also running out for the enervating quibbles over immediate steps - the main preoccupation of the few meetings held in recent weeks - which have yielded little security, let alone a much needed prisoner exchange. Israelis are urging their government to get on with the key business at hand. There is, nevertheless, lingering uncertainty in two important respects. First, many Israelis are still wary of their negotiating partners. They do not know how to deal with the Hamas government and doubt the reach of Abbas's effective authority. The distrust broadcast at the apex of the Israeli political system for so long is reflected in public opinion. Second, by extension, there is much debate on how to jump-start the process. Strict adherence to the three preconditions imposed on Hamas after its victory at the ballot box a year ago (recognition of Israel, the renunciation of terror and compliance with previous agreements) is obviously a prescription for more paralysis. In the absence of a substitute formula, there is more confusion - both within Israel and abroad - on how to begin rather than on how to complete diplomatic talks. A close reading of these sentiments would make any political leader far more assertive in pursuit of a negotiating framework than Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has proven to be. He, more than anyone else, is aware of the extent of alienation from his government and the immense disaffection with its policies. Launching a different peace offensive could offer some much-needed substantive backing to his rudderless coalition. Such a move would also address the much more profound phenomenon of escapism which has permeated the heretofore-involved Israeli polity in recent years. The disengagement from the state, physically or mentally, so evident in the alarming decline in participation rates, has further intensified since the Lebanese trauma. Fatigue has set in, and with it the demand for normalcy. The promise of some concrete improvement in national prospects can go a long way toward creating the conditions for reconnecting those who have voluntarily withdrawn because they have lost hope in their ability to effect positive change. The resumption of talks is, above all, perhaps the most crucial means for securing Israel's future. This is not the time for naysayers to hold sway or for shortsighted skeptics to prevail. A mature public, cognizant of the limits of military action and eager to try its diplomatic alternative, has overcome its fear of talking. It expects its leaders, for the same reasons and more, to cure itself of this very same phobia.