The time for serious peace talks with the Palestinians is now

Neither infusions of money,nor the release of 255 prisoners can replace the need for renewed political negotiations.

prisoner free 88 (photo credit: )
prisoner free 88
(photo credit: )
Only a fool or a political ignoramus can seriously believe that the "goodies" that we are showering on the Palestinians can, in themselves, do the trick. Neither the money, nor even the release of 256 prisoners, can replace the need for renewed political negotiations. Humanitarian acts, important as they are, do not provide a political horizon of hope. We can say many things about our prime minister, but he is not a fool and certainly not a political ignoramus. The question must therefore be asked: Why is he consistently avoiding negotiations for peace like the plague? "Israel has openly stated that we're willing to talk about issues of 'political horizon' and about how to achieve the vision of two states for two peoples," the prime minister's spokeswoman, Miri Eisin, has declared. "But we have been very clear that we are not willing to discuss at this stage the three core issues of borders, refugees and Jerusalem," she added. That, in my book, is double talk. What will their talk on a "political horizon" be about if not any of those issues? Not all of Prime Minister Olmert's ministers are as reluctant as he is about the imperative for a renewal of peace negotiations. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, in her recent address to the Israel Council for Foreign Relations, spoke of the need to reach an agreement in principle with the Palestinian Authority "the sooner the better, because as time goes by, the ability to reach such understandings is dwindling." Vice Prime Minister Haim Ramon, Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit, Public Security Minister Avi Dichter and Environment Minister Gideon Ezra are said to hold similar views. So do some prominent Kadima MKs, and of course, the Labor Party ministers also believe that we have to start talking with the Palestinians about a political solution to the impasse in which we are so firmly stuck. This amounts to a considerable opposition within the government to the prime minister's present policy. Whether he will change that policy or not depends largely on two factors: the attitude of his defense minister, and the Americans. Ehud Barak can, if he wants, twist Ehud Olmert's arm on this subject. He would have the support of the majority of the population. Three separate polls carried out in the last few weeks all showed that a majority of the Jewish population favored end-of-conflict peace negotiations. One poll gave the figure of 66 percent supporting such negotiations, the second 70% and the third 60%. As for the Americans, quite apart from the presidential speech that we heard earlier this week, we know that Secretary Rice is a firm believer in the need for end-of-conflict negotiations. Last week the State Department's spokesman, Sean McCormack, declared that the chances for peace between Israelis and Palestinians were now higher than at any other time during President Bush's term of office. In Hebrew we would say: From his mouth to the ears of God! Condoleezza Rice will preside over the forthcoming peace conference and she will pull out all plugs to ensure a resounding success. I was present at the 1991 Madrid conference as part of prime minister Yitzhak Shamir's team and witnessed the effect of the sudden interaction of Israelis, Palestinians, Syrians, Lebanese, Jordanians and Egyptians. Oslo was a direct outcome of Madrid. At the very least the multilateral committees that were then established should be resuscitated, but Rice's aim will undoubtedly be to preside over peace negotiations. The Palestinians, for their part, have made it clear that, more than the money, more even than the prisoners, they want such negotiations. "Too much time and too many lives have been lost because of useless talk - yes partners, no partners, yes weak, no weak; you repeat these statements so often that you have become imprisoned by them. Yes, we are partners and we have wasted too much time," Prime Minister Salaam Fayad told Israeli journalist Akiva Eldar this week. Yet, let no one be mistaken, the money and, in particular, the prisoners, are important. Without them, and without the removal of roadblocks, the negotiations would be meaningless. They go together; one without the other cannot attain the desired objectives. And let us not forget: One of those objectives is to prevent Hamas from taking over the West Bank. In the past we made the mistake of unilateral withdrawal without negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, which greatly strengthened Hamas. We made the mistake of refusing to negotiate an end to the conflict, which greatly weakened the moderates and the pragmatists among the Palestinians. We can now rectify those errors. We can prevent Hamas from gaining ground. It will necessitate imagination on our side, and bold initiatives. We should remember that Mahmoud Abbas declared that he would only remain as PA president for one term. It is not clear who will replace him, unless of course we decide to release Marwan Barghouti. We should not waste any more time. We should not be dragging our feet. We should not be saying "no" when the Palestinians are begging us to enter into peace negotiations. For, after all, we should realize that "peace" is not just a word that we sing songs about, or pray for. Singing and praying are not enough; we have to work for it, too. The writer is a former director-general of the Foreign Ministry.