Gershon Baskin is the Co-CEO of IPCRI, the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information. The following is a somewhat abbreviated version of his latest report in the Jerusalem Times:
All of this diplomatic energy is betting on a positive outcome from the Riyadh summit later this week. Olmert and Livni have both come out with positive statements regarding the Arab Peace Initiative, while not completely endorsing the initiative, there is room to understand that Israel is interested. Israel’s main problem remains the wording of the paragraph on refugees which leaves the issue to be negotiated in accordance with UN Resolution 194 which has been translated into the “Right of Return”. The head of the political office of the Ministry of Defense General (retired) Amos Gilead stated this morning that the right of return is equivalent to the destruction of Israel so, therefore, it cannot be a basis for negotiations. That is the typical Israeli logic on this issue. If, however, the Arab Peace Initiative clearly states that the issue will be “agreed” upon, indicating that there will be an negotiation, it is more than clear that the Arabs understand that Israel will not negotiate itself into oblivion. This paragraph even in its present wording should not deter the Israeli leaders from accepting the initiative as a basis for negotiations.
NY Times columnist Tom Friedman has reported that Olmert has met once again with someone from the Saudi leadership. There was no comment from the PM’s office. For several months now I have been writing to several of the highest ranking Saudi leaders suggesting that a senior representative of the Arab League should come to Israel and Palestine following the Summit to speak directly to the people from the podium of the Knesset and the Palestinian Parliament. We have requested that the Saudis help to raise funds for marketing the Arab Peace Initiative to the public here. We have even proposed that a joint Palestinian-Israeli delegation come to the Summit to present a declaration signed by Israeli and Palestinian public personalities in support of the initiative. Unfortunately, all of our attempts to conduct a bilateral correspondences were not successful. Perhaps some of our ideas did get through, but we have no way of knowing for sure.
The Riyadh summit could provide the Government of Israel with the appropriate ladder to use in order to engage the new PA Government. If Palestine, a full member of the League of Arab States, votes in favor once again for the Arab Peace Initiative, the Government of Israel could state that the PA has in fact granted what I call “explicit conditional recognition of Israel”, meaning that if Israel were to withdraw from the occupied territories, the Palestinian Authority would grant full recognition to Israel. In the meantime, and even prior to the Riyadh summit, it would be most helpful if the Government of Israel were to issue a declaration stating unequivocally that Israel recognizes the right of the Palestinian people to an independent state of their own on the basis of the 1967 borders next to the State of Israel. Israel should also recognize that according to the platform of the new Palestinian Government, President Abbas is fully empowered to negotiate a permanent status end-of-conflict agreement with Israel that would be brought to a referendum of the Palestinian people upon its conclusion.
Still no agenda
Despite the appalling popularity (or lack of popularity) rating of his government with PM Olmert in the front with some 98% of the public voicing no confidence, Olmert is still lacking a political agenda. This government cannot show one achievement since the elections. The only pro-active thing that the government has done is launch the war in Lebanon which in itself is enough reason to hope for its rapid fall. It seems that the main agenda of the government is to protect its members from prosecution and police investigation. One Minister after the other seems to be in front stage facing new allegations of wrong doing and corruption. There were great hopes and promises that the 17th Knesset would be a lot better in quality than the one before it, yet this is proving to be far from the truth.
It is completely bewildering that Olmert does not use the remaining time he has in office to advance a political agenda. He can’t lose any popularity by advancing a plan that might actually do some good for Israel. We have long understood that Olmert is not an ideologue but a practical politician. He does not seem to be wedded to any particular political concept such as the “greater land of Israel” on which he was educated. He came to the electorate with a commitment to advance further withdrawals from the West Bank, mainly from a recognition of the demographic realities. Where is that agenda now? He was wise enough to understand that unilateralism is not the answer but instead of coming to the realization that the alternative to unilateral is negotiations, he has implemented a policy of “doing nothing”. We don’t need leaders who’s policy is to do nothing.
One of the main problems that we face is that the front running alternative to Olmert is Netanyahu and in such a case, Olmert’s “do nothing” is better than Netanyahu’s “do a lot of harm” policies which are sure to come.
The paradox in all of this is that the Israeli public is silent. The public is far from satisfied with the present government but there is no real protest movement. The public supports policies that would advance negotiations and peace but at the same time voice their support for Netanyahu who is surely against negotiations and peace. Perhaps it is because of a total absence of any political alternative being presented to the public other than Netanyahu.
In the coming weeks we may very well be faced with a political upheaval as the Winoegrad Committee on the War in Lebanon begins to release its findings. Olmert may be forced to resign at that point, the question is whether that event would automatically result with new elections. It is possible that a new government could be formed under the leadership of Tzipi Livni, but it is yet to be known if she possesses the leadership qualities that are required to succeed. On the other hand, it seems quite clear that Olmert does not have those qualities so in the face of a choice between Livni and Netanyahu, Livni is without doubt better.