As a lame duck, Olmert may be the best hope for peace

By Rachel Shabi (THE GUARDIAN, 01/08/08):

In a country of hawks and doves, it seems fitting that the bird metaphor should continue in the consensus description of the Israeli prime minister as a lame duck. Deeply unpopular for some time, pure kismet has kept Ehud Olmert hanging on to his seat, as alleged corruption charges came hot on the heels of a damning indictment of his handling of the second Lebanon war.

Jaded Israelis saw him as the latest in a long line of corrupt leaders – a well-known joke is whether a candidate has a sufficiently long police record to qualify as a politician. Palestinians, meanwhile, were equally cynical of what they perceived to be yet another pretend negotiator who took the facade of a peace process nowhere, and slowly. The continued existence of around 600 Israeli checkpoints or barriers in the West Bank, a commitment to expanding Israeli settlements, especially around Jerusalem, and the recently declared intent to create a new settlement all fly in the face of supposed commitment to the peace process.

Olmert has said he will step down – officially declaring what has been known for months – but it is doubtful a new leader will be much better, at a time when Israeli needs political continuity perhaps more than anything else. Neither of the two contenders for Olmert’s role as Kadima party leader sparkle in the way that is so desperately needed. Tzipi Livni, closely involved on the non-core level of the current peace negotiations, is seen as a centrist and is popular with the Israeli public – among whom she has a clean, or at least not-yet-corrupted, image. But commentators have speculated that she does not “get” the pressing interest to make peace. Olmert may not fully get it either, but he is further along the road and it may take Livni months to catch up. Shaul Mofaz, meanwhile, has made clear his hawkish intentions, with his battle-cries in the Iranian direction and the talk of the need to create “realistic expectations”, which tragically translates as taking a hard line on the Palestinian issue.

On the surface, it looks as though the impending Kadima primaries mimic those of the American Democrats, in that they will present a choice between a female and an “ethnic” vote – Mofaz is of Iranian origin. But neither candidate is going to play on those screens: Livni was accused of not being “feminist enough” by women’s rights groups last year, while Mofaz has never made the historically neglected needs of Israel’s oriental Jewish population an issue.

Officially, the Palestinian line is that Israeli elections are an internal matter, and that peace negotiations are about a process, not a person. But there is clearly a wary eye on what will happen if Israeli elections are called in March, as they will be if Olmert’s leadership successor is unable to assemble a new coalition government. Then, Olmert could stay in office until the election. But a real concern is that, just as in the past, everything will stalemate as the Palestinian issue turns into a political football during the election campaign. Then, Likud and rightist Kadima candidates will play populist by trumping on the Jerusalem card: united and Israeli. Such electioneering will likely tear apart any fragile trust that is still attached to the process.

Such a campaigning style would not bode well for Jerusalem’s Arab-Israeli residents, who might become emblems of how better to defend Israel against the sort of deadly attacks the city was victim to in the last few months. In all three attacks, the perpetrators were Arab Jerusalemites. Rather than build bridges and bolster the rights of this blatantly neglected community, a hawkish leader might deem it more appropriate to destroy more of their homes and tear up their work permits.

But others see hope in this morass of uncertainty, pointing to Olmert’s resignation speech, during which his voice gained emotion when he spoke of continuing the peace process. “As long as I remain at my post I will not stop trying to continue to bring the negotiations between us and our neighbours to a successful conclusion that embodies hope,” the resigning leader said. Some take that to cue a theory that, on both the Palestinian and the recently declared Syrian negotiation track, Olmert can now go hell for leather. “It looks like a paradox,” observes Ha’aretz columnist Akiva Eldar. “But now he doesn’t have to worry about consolidating his power as prime minister, he has a clear interest to do it, the mandate to do it and nothing to lose.”

Eldar points out that Ehud Barak did something similar by negotiating at Taba a few weeks before an Israeli general election. For Olmert, success would still depend on the willingness of Labour and Kadima allies to stand by him and effectively enable him to leave a legacy that might make Israelis – and Palestinians – forgive the rest. But by this analysis, Palestinian and Syrian partners on these parallel peace tracks should race with Olmert to get final status agreements on paper in the few remaining weeks of his premiership. It’s a small, rickety and bullet-ridden window, but in a few months it might well be replaced by an impenetrable concrete wall.