Osama Al-sharif
Arab News
February 6, 2008 - 7:59pm

n the intricate and volatile workings of Israeli politics a day is a lifetime and the chances of survival are measured not by how many are on one’s side but by the weakness or strength of one’s opponents. Thus Ehud Olmert finds himself relatively stronger after the final findings of the Winograd Commission on the 34-day-war with Lebanon’s Hezbollah in the summer of 2006 were published last week.

The report pointed the blame at the military but avoided harshly criticizing the prime minister for the outcome of the inconclusive war, believed by the majority in Israel to have failed to achieve its goals.

He still lags in the polls and his popularity ratings remain dismal, but tod ay fewer Israelis want him out than two weeks ago. His coalition remains intact even after the departure of ultranationalist Yisrael Beitenu party from the government. And for the time being, he is able to stave off attempts to topple him by some in his party.

Not much of a triumph, but Olmert, who took over Kadima party after its founder and former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon succumbed to a coma, and later won his first elections continues to cling to power, somehow.

But no one knows how long he will be able to do so, or if he will survive 2008, a year which, with US prodding, promises to deliver an independent Palestinian state before President George Bush leaves the White House. Unlike Sharon, Olmert is perceived, by many in Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the US, as someone who can negotiate an agreement with the Palestinians.

Labeled a secular, Olmert, whose most important job before becoming prime minister was mayor of Jerusalem, is different from the war hero Sharon in many ways. He is seen as a pragmatist, a man who is willing to take some tough decisions over settlements and Jerusalem for the sake of achieving an end to the conflict with the Palestinians. This is both his strength and his possible Achilles heel.

The ultranationalists and the right-wingers in Israel have threatened to bring him down if he offers even the slightest compromises to the Palestinians. His supporters, the majority of whom are secular, urban and middle-class Israelis, share his desire to see an end to the conflict with the Palestinians with its intifadas, recessions and negative world public opinion.

Moreover, Olmert represents a minority of Israeli politicians who believe the Jewish state can only survive until the next war. He is quoted as saying that “Israelis are tired of war, tired of being victors.” He is wary of the Iranian threat, the demographic challenge that Israel’s booming Arab population pose to the Jewish state, and of the fact that unless his government seals an agreement with the PNA now, it may never find a bona fide Palestinian partner to make peace with.

Such talk is poison for Israel’s hard-liners, led by Likud and its charismatic leader and former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Few outside the state appreciate the fact that Israel is fatally divided over the issue of reaching final peace with the Palestinians. On the one side of the equation are the emigrants and the religious minorities who today represent a shifting undercurrent in Israeli politics. The hawkish parties rely on tens of thousands of recent settlers from Russia, Eastern Europe and the United States who believe in a Biblical permission to colonize the entire Promised Land; no room for the Palestinians and their state in greater Israel, and Jerusalem, once unified, will never be divided or shared.

The Left is weak and disorganized. True Labor is a major partner in Olmert’s coalition, but its leader, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, is in a hawkish mood. His troops are encircling Gaza and pounding West Bank cities in search of militants. He is not the same Barak who almost concluded a historic deal with the late Yasser Arafat in Camp David in 1999 — and lived to pay the political price. So Olmert, the weak and not-so-moderate Israeli prime minister, is all the Israeli peace camp has to offer to the world at this time. And it is not much, at least for beleaguered PNA leader Mahmoud Abbas. Ever since the relaunch of the peace process in Annapolis last November, the talks have failed to lift off. Israel speeded up its settlement activities around Jerusalem and then came the Gaza fiasco.

Still the two leaders, and their negotiating teams, managed to meet a few times, and each time they did, nothing happened. Olmert spoke well and reiterated his government’s desire to create momentum. But on the ground, and especially after a controversial visit by US President George Bush aimed at boosting morale, the situation worsened.

Regardless of what Olmert really believes in or what he wishes to do, the reality is simple: He is a weak and besieged Israeli leader. He will continue to fight for his political survival and, in the process, he will avoid giving the Palestinians anything.

He is off the hook for now, but not for long. His ability to survive until the end of the year is an open-ended question. Such a somber reality puts the entire peace process in doubt. Even if Abbas manages to square off his differences with Hamas in Gaza, Israel will find ways to keep the negotiations bogged down. Since Olmert is too weak to call for snap elections, the name of his game is to keep his head above water — for as long as possible.

But eventually, as Israeli politics winds down to business, he will lose grip and a new leader will emerge. In reality it is not that there is no Palestinian peace partner for Israel to talk to, it is Israel that is unable to decide on which path to take.

As Olmert tries to keep his coalition in form, his partners, and foes, will try to blackmail him. In the process he will attempt to play all sides at once, pretending to talk peace with the Palestinians, while appeasing the hard-liners and members of his own party. This year could pass very quickly and the Bush promise could easily turn into a mirage, if not a nightmare.


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