A pause we cannot afford

We are living through a political intermission, but the facts on the ground are dictating their own timetable.

Olmert Abbas 224.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Olmert Abbas 224.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
Is it the summer heat that makes us yawn when we read about the goings-on of our politicians? Or could it be that we are just simply not impressed by the blustering of Ehud Barak or the mediocrity of Shaul Mofaz, while the prime minister himself has become irrelevant as a has-been? Or perhaps we are yearning for the strong hand of a true leader, a Ben-Gurion, a Begin, or even, whether we liked him or not, a Sharon. Anwar Sadat was such a leader. His bold visit to Jerusalem fired the imagination of every Israeli, from the Left and from the Right. He set his sights on retrieving Egyptian land occupied by Israel in exchange for peace, and the peoples of Israel and of Egypt were overwhelmingly in favor of that equation - land for peace, peace for land. The same would have happened today if Israeli and Palestinian leaders - or Israeli and Syrian leaders for that matter - would have brought before their people a viable peace agreement. Despite all the anti-peace rhetoric that we hear day and night, the people of our region - Israeli, Palestinian, Syrian - would welcome a reasonable and just peace agreement with open arms if only our leaders could clinch such a deal. The irony and the tragedy of the present situation is that we have never had more favorable circumstances for reaching peace, yet it has never seemed to be further from our grasp. We have, perhaps for the first time, a Palestinian leadership that is for peace and against violence. The Syrians, too, show signs of wanting to reach an agreement with us. The Arab Peace Initiative, as the Saudi proposal was called, is still on the table. It offers full peace and normalization between the Arab world and Israel in exchange for the land occupied by Israel in 1967, as a basis for negotiations which would, of course, allow flexibility such as, for example, keeping the settlement blocs in exchange for other land. Cognizant of the wall-to-wall opposition in Israel to the "right of return" formula for solving the refugee question, the Arab peace initiative calls for "an agreed solution" to the refugee question, which in effect nulls the right of return, as obviously Israel would never agree to it. SO, ON the face of it, the chances for peace have never been better. If we had a Ben-Gurion in the prime minister's residence the chances are that he would have reacted favorably to the Arab League's peace initiative, accepted the League's outstretched hand, and begun negotiations with it to achieve the best possible results for Israel. Instead, we at first ignored the initiative and finally reacted to it in a half-hearted manner. But, of course, we don't have a Ben-Gurion in Balfour Street, and Sharon is still lying in a coma in his hospital bed. There is no one of the stature of Ben-Gurion, Begin or even Sharon on the Israeli horizon (though Tzipi Livni could yet surprise us). Moreover, we are now living in an interregnum, in a period of waiting, waiting for new leaders to walk onto the stage, and in such a period common belief is that nothing much can happen. It is not only a question of who will replace Ehud Olmert as leader of Kadima and who will become our next prime minister in the forthcoming elections. In truth, the curtain is coming down not only for Prime Minister Olmert but also for others who are at the head of the political pyramid of their countries in the Middle East. President Mahmoud Abbas has repeatedly said that he will not seek reelection and it is by no means clear who will replace him. Two of the principal leaders in our region have passed the 80 mark (one of them is 84, and I don't mean President Shimon Peres). Both President Mubarak of Egypt and the Saudi King Abdullah have proved to be reliable and well tested leaders, yet no leader, able as he or she may be, is immune to the laws of biology. Perhaps for that reason the political clout that Egypt once wielded in the Middle East has weakened. I once heard President Sadat say to Prime Minister Begin "the Arab world needs Egypt much more than Egypt needs the Arab world." I am not sure to what extent that is true today. The interregnum that we are living in is, however, marked first and foremost by the twilight casting its ever-lengthening shadow in the White House. Not much can seemingly happen when we have three lame ducks ruling over what will be and what will not be in our region. President Bush, President Abbas and Prime Minister Olmert have that in common - their days as rulers are numbered. Who will take their place? No one can predict whether Barack Obama or John McCain will win the race for the White House. From our point of view the big question is which one of them will better absorb the lessons of the mistakes that preceding presidents made when tackling the Arab-Israeli conflict, which one will be quicker off the mark in an effort to reach an agreement and save the two-state solution. To the joy of those of us who fail to understand the disastrous consequences for Israel of the collapse of the two-state solution, and to the dismay of those who do understand it, that solution is in danger of being removed as a viable option. More and more Palestinians are calling for a new strategy: the disbandment of the PA so that Israel would once more become responsible for the well-being of the Palestinian population, and the demand for citizenship and eventual voting rights for Palestinians in a one-state solution. We have heard recent declarations to that effect from Abu Ala, the former prime minister and head of the Palestinian negotiating team, from the head of al-Quds University Sari Nusseibeh, who is considered to be a leading dove on the Palestinian scene, and from many others. For former minister and vice-president of Bir Zeit University Ghassan Khatib, writing on the Bitterlemons Web site, the alternatives are clear: either a move forward to a two-state solution, or a renewal of the conflict. So on the one hand we are living through a political intermission, an interregnum waiting for a new leadership to take over from the old, but on the other hand the facts on the ground are dictating their own timetable. We may not be able to wait for the new prime minister to take over in Jerusalem, or for the next president in Washington to activate a new Middle Eastern policy. So we may be yawning through these hot summer months, but even lame ducks may sometimes be forced to take fateful decisions that will affect our future, and that is what we may be seeing in the coming weeks and months.