Uzi Benziman
Haaretz (Opinion)
April 28, 2008 - 6:16pm

It's not clear whether Ehud Olmert's situation regarding the possibility of initiating peace moves with Syria resembles that of the man who wants to but can't, the one who can but doesn't want to, or the one who can't and convinces himself that he doesn't want to anyway.

Despite his efforts, Olmert has not managed to shake off the image of a hurried person whose judgment is in question. Two years ago he rushed to wage war in Lebanon; now he appears to be sending peace messages to Syrian President Bashar Assad, even though the prime minister has spent his entire term of office rejecting Assad's conciliatory signals. But whether Olmert's position has genuinely changed or he is merely making a tactical move, it is worth taking into consideration the public response to it.

A survey conducted by Mina Tzemach and published in Yedioth Ahronoth a few days ago found that just 32 percent of the public is ready for a full withdrawal from the Golan Heights; among Jewish respondents, this willingness shrinks to 25 percent. Seventy-four percent of the overall population and 80 percent of the Jewish population does not believe that Assad is genuinely interested in peace.

The politicians took the news about contact with Damascus in a way that reflects public opinion. David Tal, who heads the Knesset House Committee and is a member of the ruling party, announced that he was accelerating debate on a bill aimed at requiring a national referendum over concessions in the Golan Heights or Jerusalem. MK Zeev Elkin, also of Kadima, attacked Olmert, saying he was making promises he had no chance of fulfilling.

According to Elkin, more than half of Kadima MKs oppose withdrawing from the Golan. Cabinet members have expressed surprise that such a serious subject came out of Olmert's bureau without being discussed with them first. The right wing (Benjamin Netanyahu, Yuval Steinitz, Effi Eitam) has completely denounced the idea of giving up the Golan in exchange for peace, and the Golan's residents have made it clear that there's nothing to discuss. Such a situation highlights the question of whether Olmert can, even if he wants to.

Olmert will not be in a very good position when he begins negotiations with Assad because the public is not behind him. In addition, it's not clear that it is legitimate for Olmert to initiate a deal with Syria - whose price would be to relinquish the entire Golan Heights - when the political establishment and the people do not support such a move. Menachem Begin had widespread public and political support for his negotiations with Egypt, which entailed a willingness to give up the entire Sinai. And Yitzhak Rabin was in a similar situation when he held talks with King Hussein over an Israel-Jordan peace agreement.

Ariel Sharon led the disengagement plan with the backing of a clear majority in the Knesset. Sharon didn't automatically have a majority; he had to win one, and did so through some unfair practices (ignoring the position of Likud institutions, dismissing National Union ministers to ensure a majority in the cabinet). But there is no doubt that the evacuation of the Gaza Strip was carried out with full authorization.

Therefore, the lesson that should guide Olmert is that if he does indeed want - to reach an agreement with Assad, that is - then he can do so. He needs to do what his predecessors did and win widespread public support for his peace initiative. The position of prime minister is a convenient control center from which to shape public opinion, and Olmert is no novice in that field. If achieving peace with Syria is one of Olmert's burning ambitions, and if he is endowed with leadership characteristics, the prime minister is capable of getting the public backing he needs.

To do so, Olmert must occupy center stage, not operate solely from behind the curtains. This means he has to create a stable coalition for the peace initiative, get the support of the defense establishment, and prepare the public for the concessions that successful negotiations will entail. A poor start does not necessarily say anything about the expected results. Even the counter-examples - the assassination of Rabin and Ehud Barak's political downfall in the wake of negotiations with the Palestinians - do not contradict the bottom line, that above all, Olmert must want.


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