Olmert-Abbas Talks: Is Progress Possible?


Amidst the swirl of recent events, including the Beijing Olympics, the brief, bloody war between Russia and Georgia, the Republican and Democratic Conventions, and Hurricane Gustav, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas have continued their schedule of face-to-face meetings, ostensibly aimed at reaching a peace agreement.

While face-to-face talks are always useful and are much preferred over violence and counter-attacks, it is legitimate to ask what can realistically be accomplished in these conversations between two weakened leaders. Ehud Olmert, facing numerous investigations into alleged corrupt practices, has already announced his intention to resign later this month when his centrist Kadima Party will elect a new leader. It is not altogether certain who will emerge as the new Israeli prime minister when the entire process plays out. Tzipi Livni, the deputy prime minister and foreign minister in the Kadima Cabinet, is considered a prime candidate, and so are former prime ministers Benjamin Netanyahu of the hardline Likud Party and Ehud Barak, the leader of the Labor Party.


As to the status of the peace talks: Mahmoud Abbas, who has never been much of a forceful leader since his election as Yasser Arafat’s successor, only has real authority over about half of the defined Palestinian Authority — the West Bank. Abbas’s Fatah Party lost the elections in the Gaza Strip to the terrorist group Hamas, which continues to have an iron grip on the densely-populated region. Egypt negotiated a “period of calm” between Hamas and Israel two months ago, which, for the most part, seems to be holding. At the same time, Hamas remains adamantly committed to the destruction of the Jewish State and refuses to abide by any and all agreements reached between Israel and the Palestinian Authority in the past or in future negotiations. Thus, even if Abbas were willing to make a deal with Israel, it could not realistically have any chance of success as long as Hamas refuses to recognize Israel’s right to exist or the validity of a formal peace with the Jewish State.

Regarding Olmert, as a lame duck prime minister, he has almost no leeway in negotiating any kind of agreement with the Palestinians that will stick. If Olmert is too hasty to reach an agreement, he will have to make concessions about such issues as Jerusalem and final borders. Such a deal would be strongly opposed by members of his own ruling coalition, which could cause the already weak government to finally collapse. If the hardline Likud Party takes power with a narrow majority, it will be unable to move forward with any meaningful concessions that would make a deal feasible. If the Labor Party takes power and attempts to make major concessions in the interests of reaching an agreement, it could expect fierce opposition from the right.

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni attended part of the most recent meeting between Olmert and Abbas, meeting with her Palestinian counterpart, Ahmed Queria. The JTA reports that Livni criticized Olmert’s rush to get a preliminary agreement signed during last Sunday’s Cabinet meeting. “We musn’t let timetables dictate our actions and cause us to try and bridge large gaps in a way that may lead to an impasse or force us to concede on issues that are critical to Israel just to achieve results.”

Livni was responding to pressures from the Bush Administration to achieve agreement on a two-state solution before the end of George W. Bush’s term in January 2009. Both Israeli and Palestinian leaders understandably may prefer to wait not only until a new Israeli government is in place, but until the U.S. Presidential elections have been concluded.

Winston Churchill, back in 1955, in comments at a White House visit, said, “To jaw, jaw, is better than to war, war,” meaning that diplomacy is always to be preferred over warfare.

Therefore, even the relatively empty talks between Olmert and Abbas have value as a means of keeping lines of communication open. But we should not expect any meaningful progress until the new administrations are in place in both Israel and the United States.

Certainly, as we approach the new Jewish Year 5769, we renew our fervent prayer that peace with security for Israel and its neighbors can be achieved as soon as possible.