Failure isn't an option

If Olmert returns empty-handed from Annapolis, most Israelis will question why we need to keep him as prime minister.

Olmert Saban forum 224.8 (photo credit: GPO)
Olmert Saban forum 224.8
(photo credit: GPO)
The US-sponsored Annapolis meeting that will presumably take place is the riskiest step taken by Israeli and Palestinian leaders since Camp David in July 2000. That summit in the summer of 2000 resulted in the failure that gave birth to the second Palestinian intifada and the death of thousands of Israelis and Palestinians. With the past seven years of death and destruction in mind, failure is not an option. There is currently no alternative to a negotiated agreement between Israel and Palestine. Neither side enjoys the luxury of options other than negotiations that will lead to agreements that must lead to peace. Both Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will not return home from Annapolis as heroes if they fail to reach positive agreed upon outcomes. Abbas will face a very disappointed public that not only wants an agreement with Israel on the establishment of a Palestinian state - they are expecting immediate results that will have an impact on the quality of their lives on the ground. They are expecting not only the removal of hundreds of checkpoints and road closures, they are also expecting a release of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli prisons and a sharp improvement in the economy. Palestinians do not want their leader to come home from Annapolis with stories of glory about how he did not cave into Israeli demands while having nothing positive to show. This very well may be Abbas' last chance to prove his leadership and his moderation. OLMERT TOO is facing a public that has little tolerance for failure. Israelis are quite anxious about a renewed peace process that will include territorial withdrawals with continued terrorism. Olmert will not make agreements that will include Israeli concessions without being tied to Palestinian performance, particularly on security issues. The US, it seems, has stated its readiness to determine to what extent both sides have fulfilled their commitments under the road map process. Now the Americans will be determining if Israel's claims on Palestinian non-performance are correct or false. With the American monitoring and verification system in place, Israel will be required to fulfill its road map commitments including the dismantlement of outposts, freezing all settlement building and redeploying outside of Palestinian cities to the lines held prior to October 2000. Palestinians and Israelis will no longer be able to escape commitments that they have both made. If the Palestinians do make progress on the ground in fighting terrorism and in consolidating their security control over the West Bank, as they claim that they are doing, Olmert will not have any real pretexts to defer political progress. IF OLMERT and Abbas fail and Olmert returns home empty-handed, most Israelis will question why we need to keep him as prime minister. Members of Kadima will begin searching for a more successful leader and the Labor Party will also begin its own soul-searching regarding staying aboard a sinking ship. Failure in Annapolis could easily result in a collapse of both the Olmert government and the Abbas regime. A failure for Olmert could be presented to the public by the spin doctors that Olmert did not cave in to Palestinian or American pressure. But at the end of the day, it will also leave Olmert with no political agenda. Olmert's only alternative to negotiations with Abbas would be a re-adoption of Israeli unilateralism that he presented in the last elections. The Israeli public liked the idea then of not waiting for the Palestinians to prove worthy of being a partner, but after Lebanon last summer, it is unlikely that they would like to see Olmert lead the way. Olmert's political survival, therefore, seems linked to his ability to be a successful peacemaker. Perhaps that is why he has worked so hard to develop such a positive personal relationship with Abbas and also why he seems to be running a back channel of negotiations in case the Tzipi Livni-Abu Ala channel is unsuccessful. As a war maker, Olmert failed in the eyes of the public and if Israel's face is turned in the direction of continued conflict, the public would prefer to see someone else in the leader's seat. ON THE Palestinian side, Abbas faces no Parliamentary opposition, because the parliament is not functioning. But political failure would most likely bring about increased chaos and calls for Abbas to step down. Most experts believe that the political failure of Abbas would produce a new round of violence, both internal (between the Palestinians) and external (toward Israel). MOREOVER, even if an agreement is reached there is no guarantee that either leader could sustain it. An Israeli-Palestinian deal in Annapolis might mean the end of the coalition in Israel. Shas and Yisrael Beiteinu have already threatened that they will leave the coalition if Olmert touches the main final status issues. But even if Olmert's coalition does fall apart and he chooses not to rely on the votes of the Left and the Arab parties in the Knesset to support the Annapolis process, his position going to elections is much stronger with an agreement in-hand than without one. It should be clear that the contours of any Israeli-Palestinian agreement will be similar to the Clinton parameters laid down by president Bill Clinton in the end of December 2000. Those parameters included Palestinian statehood in most of the West Bank and Gaza, Israeli and Palestinian capitals in Jerusalem in which Israel would hold sovereignty over all of the Jewish neighborhoods in the city and Palestinians over all of their neighborhoods. The Palestinians would end up with authority and perhaps sovereignty over the Temple Mount/ Haram al Sharif and Israel would have the same status over the Western wall. Most Palestinian refugees would become citizens of the Palestine or remain where they are and receive adequate compensation. Without going into more detail, those of the basic parameters of any possible agreement. It is unlikely that Olmert and Abbas will reach that level of detail in their Annapolis understandings. A successful outcome will have to be a declaration that is somewhat more detailed and explicit than what Olmert is presently talking about and somewhat less detailed and explicit than what Abbas is presenting. If Olmert and Abbas do not reach at least partial understanding on some of the permanent status issues, there is no point at all to even beginning the process. Abbas certainly cannot survive a political process that does not deal with the basic issues concerning statehood, borders, settlements, Jerusalem and refugees. The Annapolis process, at a minimum must at least set forth a plan and a time frame for dealing with these issues. One old truism regarding the Israeli-Palestinian peace process may actually be proven false by Annapolis: Most observers used to say that Israeli-Palestinian peace-making requires strong leaders. This time around, it may actually be that the weakness of the leaders is the strength of the process. Neither one of them can afford to fail, for that matter - Israelis and Palestinians can not afford for them to fail either. The writer is co-CEO of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information.