Editor's Notes: The asymmetry confronting Bush

Why would Palestinian leaders make compromises beneficial to Israel and opposed by many of their own people when the status quo is widely seen to be working in their favor?

Ehud Olmert bridled a little when asked, in the course of the interview that appears in today's Jerusalem Post, whether President George W. Bush is coming here next week "to be the godfather of the state of Palestine." "I don't think he would define a visit like this in those terms," the prime minister responded. He went on to stress that the visit is, first and foremost, an expression of friendship. But as Olmert also explained in the interview, Bush is now personally committed to the diplomatic process formally relaunched in November at Annapolis and thus certainly hopes to be, if not exactly the godfather, then the presidential facilitator of Palestine. So he would like to see the Annapolis timetable met - that is, for Israel and the Palestinians to reach a full, permanent peace accord by the end of his presidential term, ready for implementation when the security conditions on the ground allow. Of course, as Olmert also made crystal clear, Bush has no need to press Israel into trying to make a success of the negotiating effort, since the prime minister thoroughly shares the White House's peace-deal-in-2008 ambition. Time is not on Israel's side, in Olmert's firm conception, since demographic trends will likely create a non-Jewish majority between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea within 20 or 30 years, and "the moment that happens, the threat [to Israel's essential Jewish democratic character] is likely to be realized." Furthermore, Olmert said, an almost divine constellation of circumstances has provided Israel with the most helpful cast of key international statespeople imaginable. Bush is plainly the lead member of that cast, a president who knows and endorses Israel's negotiating red lines, a president of whom the prime minister said effusively: "He's not doing a single thing that I don't agree to." But alongside this most friendly American president for 30 years, Olmert listed Nicolas Sarkozy, Angela Merkel, Gordon Brown and Tony Blair as supportive players whose presence amounted almost to a case of "the hand of God" from the point of view of Israel's interests. AS BUSH FLIES IN, then, the question - as it has been through so many bloodily failed previous efforts at peacemaking - is not whether Israel is anxious for a viable accord, or whether America and much of the international community want one, but whether the Palestinian leadership does, and if so whether it speaks for or can win over the Palestinian public. If the erection of the security barrier in recent years gradually made it harder for Palestinian terrorists to maintain the post-Camp David 2000 strategic suicide bombing campaign, last Friday's murders of two off-duty soldiers out hiking near Hebron, by members of the very Palestinian Authority that is supposed to be partnering Israel toward peace, underline that the will to kill is most emphatically extant. The most senior members of Israel's security establishment are adamant that the PA and its security forces are anything but capable of providing a viable security partnership; the PA's own Prime Minister Salaam Fayad has said the same. The IDF's firm belief, indeed, is that only its presence is preventing the West Bank from turning into a second Hamas-dominated Gaza. And the concrete, fresh security reform plan that Quartet envoy Blair so hoped to see readied by the PA for the international donors' conference in Paris last month, intended to remake the current grim reality on the ground and to ensure the overhaul of that deficient security apparatus, remains conspicuous by its absence. In his meetings with Mahmoud Abbas, when conversation focuses not on day-to-day issues but on those core final-status subjects that are meant to be resolved over the next 12 months, Olmert insists he sees real room for optimism. "If you would have asked me 30 years ago what I thought about Abu Mazen," Olmert said in our interview, "I almost certainly would have said that he was a terrorist... You sit with Abu Mazen today and he unequivocally speaks about recognizing Israel, and about peace with Israel... There has been a change, and it is not only with him. You hear [the same from] Salaam Fayad... They want peace with me." Moreover, Olmert believes, Abbas is reconciled to the need to take the kind of conciliatory positions, including on the issue of the "right of return," that can enable a permanent accord. "My impression is that he wants peace with Israel, and accepts Israel as Israel defines itself," the prime minister said carefully. "If you ask him to say that he sees Israel as a Jewish state, he will not say that. But if you ask me whether in his soul he accepts Israel, as Israel defines itself, I think he does." Officials close to the prime minister, however, draw a distinction between the encouraging and good-natured interaction in the Olmert-Abbas meetings and the stances adhered to where it really matters, in the nitty-gritty talks between the two teams of negotiators. There, the word is either that Abbas is choosing not to impress upon his negotiators an imperative to adopt conciliatory positions, or that they are defying him. Either way, almost six weeks after Annapolis, breakthroughs there have not been. Olmert rightly remarked to us, when asked whether anything had moved since Annapolis, that it was somewhat absurd to be expecting dramatic progress in a matter of weeks when "we are talking about a conflict of 100 years." Indeed, it is. Except that it was he and Bush and Abbas who set themselves this improbable one-year deadline. UNFORTUNATELY, IF Israel regards time as working against it, many Palestinians may be understandably redoubled in their conviction that time is working for them. Yasser Arafat often bragged about how the greater fertility of the Palestinian womb would see his people prevail over the Jews, a strategic stance he chose not to reverse when the previous American president pushed hard for a peace accord in the final months of his second term. Olmert counters this line of thinking by stating first that it is not his job to make calculations for the Palestinians about their interests, but to act in accordance with Israel's, and second by noting that the purportedly peerless pro-Israel international context may not prove to be peerless after all, and therefore that the Palestinians, if they play for time in these talks, may find cause for regret later. Neither of these arguments is especially convincing, and many Israeli and US diplomats privately acknowledge the bitter irony of a situation in which Israel increasingly seems to be seeking the establishment of Palestine with far more urgency than the Palestinians do. The Foreign Ministry cites the quest for a two-state solution as Israel's prime goal for 2008, ahead even of thwarting the imminent existential threat posed by a potentially nuclear Iran. Since our state has been here for going on 60 years, that means the key foreign policy objective for the Jewish state is now establishing Palestine. By contrast, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, evidently internalizing the asymmetrical irony, is said to have asked Israeli experts on her recent visits whether they know any Palestinians under the age of 40 who similarly seek a two-state solution of peace and reconciliation, rather than preferring to wait for the womb and a binational state, and to have been met by embarrassed silences. Indeed, again as Olmert's candid interview underlines, why would the Palestinian leadership, even if its senior figures are truly moderate, feel the urgent imperative to confront its own hostile populace and impose compromise when, in Olmert's words, Israel's true supporters on the global stage envisage a smaller Israel than even this conciliatory Israeli leadership can countenance. Olmert declared that Ma'aleh Adumim, for instance, is "an indivisible part of Jerusalem and the state of Israel." Yet just a few minutes later he acknowledged that "the world that really supports Israel" sees our future "in terms of the '67 borders... [and] the division of Jerusalem." Bush is unique and "amazing," Olmert made plain, in thinking of Israel in terms of "'67 plus." In the final months of a uniquely pro-Israel presidency, with the pro-Israel international community already won over to many of their positions, with the Olmert coalition far from guaranteed to hold together if an accord were reached and too weak in the interim to impose the road map-required settlement freeze it has promised, it might be argued, indeed, that the Palestinians would be mad to mount an energetic push for a compromise accord just now. OLMERT USED his personal background to stress the unexpected urgency of the demographic dangers. When his parents immigrated from China in 1933, he said, they came "to live in a Jewish democratic state. It was inconceivable to them that in their son's generation there would be a threat to the very Jewishness of the State of Israel." His concern over the demographics is appropriate. While scholars may argue about precise population figures and estimates, sooner or later a compromise will have to be made between the river and the sea over either territory, democratic rights or the Jewishness of Israel. And the overwhelming majority of Israelis are not prepared to compromise on a Jewish state and a democratic one, which leaves only land. His predecessor, Ariel Sharon, had all but given up on the prospect of negotiating territorial compromise with the Palestinians, and was thus about to resort to unilateralism as a means of separation in the West Bank, having done the same in Gaza. With that program, moreover, he would have won a third successive election had his health not failed him exactly two years ago. With unilateralism discredited, Olmert is now urgently seeking to revive the negotiating option. But its success requires that the Abbas-led Palestinian leadership be persuaded to make compromises in its maximalist positions that are both beneficial to Israel and opposed by many of its own people. Surely that could only happen were it persuaded that such concessions were in its urgent, essential interest as well - if, for instance, it was motivated to seek accelerated common cause with Israel in desperate horror of being swept aside by the Islamists. It might be noted in this light that on Monday, having previously spoken of the need to smash Hamas's control of Gaza, Abbas issued an impassioned plea for "dialogue" and the turning of a "new page" in relations with the Islamists. This despite the warnings of Olmert government officials that the new diplomatic effort would be over were Abbas to so much as "flirt" with Hamas.