A long good-bye

Chances are Olmert will stay on for weeks, possibly months, beyond the September 17 Kadima primary.

Olmert worried 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
Olmert worried 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
On Wednesday evening Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told the citizens of Israel that he would resign as soon as a new Kadima Party leader was chosen in September. It may be a long good-bye. Chances are Olmert will stay on for weeks, possibly months, beyond the September 17 Kadima primary. He will likely wait until his successor forms a government, perhaps in October. If Kadima can't pull a coalition together, general elections will probably be scheduled for early 2009; the winner will then need time to form a government. Olmert doesn't intend to spend the coming months in caretaker mode. Saying Israel is "closer than ever to firm understandings that can serve as a basis for agreements" on both the Palestinian and Syrian tracks, he is hoping for a deal with Mahmoud Abbas and Bashar Assad. THERE ARE two things Israel cannot afford. The first is a lengthy vacuum in the conduct of our security, political and diplomatic affairs. The second is a bad diplomatic deal that could be seen as binding on Olmert's successor. Olmert must resist the temptation to give more than he should in bargaining, and more than he would in other circumstances in order to tie up a legacy-building accord. But why not put diplomacy on hold until a new government is formed? Because the clock is ticking, whether we like it or not. The reason Israel is negotiating with Abbas - besides pressure from the international community - is that the status quo is untenable. Israel needs to remain both Jewish and democratic, as well as economically, culturally and politically aligned with America and Europe. That means Jerusalem must strive continuously for an accommodation with the relative moderates among the Palestinians. That said, it is the Palestinians who remain obdurate. They insist on an Israeli withdrawal to the untenable 1949 Armistice Lines, and show no flexibility on such key issues as Jerusalem and refugees. Abbas, moreover, may not be able to deliver a deal even if he wanted to; his polity is fragmented and he's done nothing to prepare the Palestinians for compromise - nothing to emphasize to his own people the legitimacy of the Jews' sovereign claims. Hamas, for its part, is spinning Olmert's resignation as proof that negotiating with Israel is a waste of time. Yet it's nothing of the sort. Were Abbas cast more in the mold of an Anwar Sadat or a King Hussein, a breakthrough would be more likely. And seven years of Hamas bombardment of Israeli territory from Gaza hasn't helped matters. EVEN AS Israel looks inward, awaiting the formation of the next government, its security and diplomatic concerns are ever more pressing. Hamas continues to hold sway in Gaza and to build up arms for the next round of fighting. Hizbullah ascendancy in Lebanese politics grows while it lays the groundwork for future aggression. Iran perseveres in bringing centrifuges on-line as it spins toward a nuclear weapon. The Syrian track demands skillful handling to ensure that no genuine opportunity for peace is missed - and no bad deal is hastily arrived at. Across the Atlantic, George Bush's term as president expires in six months. Time flies, and we are mindful that there may be opportunities Israel can best take while this unusually empathetic president remains in power. Whether it is talks with Abbas, managing the security situation along our northern border and with Gaza or pursuing efforts to free Gilad Schalit, the country's foreign and security predicament cannot be put on hold. THAT IS why now more than ever, personal animosities notwithstanding, Ehud Olmert must demonstrably put country before self. It is imperative that fateful decisions whose consequences may extend far into the future be reached via leadership consensus. Olmert must, as he has promised, coordinate with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, as well as with Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz in his capacity as minister in charge of strategic dialogue with the US on Iran. He should also solicit input from opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu. Ehud Olmert did not have the benefit of a smooth transition when he took over from the stricken Ariel Sharon in January 2006. To the extent that he winds down his tenure in an atmosphere characterized by consultation and stability he will be doing both his legacy and the country a great service.