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In Mideast, the first hurdle is cleared

Times Staff Writer

Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas have spent more time alone together than any pair of Israeli and Palestinian leaders. They have sat for hours, in 12 meetings over the last 11 months, sharing pictures of their grandchildren and talking about a world in which those kids can grow up in peace.

Smoke fills Omert’s study as Abbas, puffing on a Marlboro Red, describes the crushing burden of Israeli occupation in the West Bank. The Israeli prime minister lights up a cigar, lecturing the Palestinian Authority president on the need to stop Palestinian militias from plotting against his people.

Aides say these one-on-one conversations, conducted in English, have grown more relaxed as the two men ease into a backslapping familiarity -- a relationship warmer than any Israeli leader had with Abbas’ late predecessor, Yasser Arafat.

If making peace were up to Olmert and Abbas alone, their compatriots might not be so skeptical that this quality time will pay off. The two leaders have a rough understanding of how to reach the goal of an independent Palestinian state, their aides say, but have been reluctant to write it down or say it publicly, given the political risks of the trade-offs required.

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Their rapport and their leadership will be tested severely in the coming months, after an international conference called by President Bush this week in Annapolis, Md., in an attempt to revive the peace process.

Both camps have hardened their positions since President Clinton oversaw the last major effort, with Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, at Camp David in 2000.

The collapse of those talks set off a Palestinian uprising. Israel seized more West Bank land for Jewish settlements and began walling itself off from the rest of the territory. It withdrew unilaterally from the Gaza Strip in 2005, only to see the enclave fall to Abbas’ Islamic rival, Hamas, which vows to destroy the Jewish state.

Olmert and Abbas say they are ready to tackle the conflict’s long-standing issues: the borders of a future Palestinian state, the status of Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees who fled when Israel gained independence in 1948.

Similar constraints

The stakes for both are existential. Lacking the commanding authority of their immediate predecessors, each must calculate the wrath of hawkish rivals at home and the risk of losing office or even their lives.

The two men are bound by a common fear of Hamas, the rising influence of its Iranian benefactors and the spread of radical Islam. They share a belief that time is running out for a negotiated Israeli-Palestinian compromise over the same sliver of Earth.

Before leaving Saturday for Annapolis, Olmert said this might be Israel’s last chance to strike a bargain that would guarantee its survival as a state with a Jewish majority. Without a deal, Abbas could yield to the idea of a one-state solution some Palestinians now favor in which Arabs might someday achieve a demographic majority in the region that includes Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

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“We have a partner and we are not willing to postpone negotiations to a later date, at which our partner might not be capable of fulfilling the mission,” Olmert said. “This is an opportunity. It should be taken.”

For the first time since 1993, at the dawn of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, “the peace process is being taken up by two leaders who seem to believe that the other side is serious about creating peace,” wrote analyst David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “It is precisely this underlying respect between Olmert and Abbas, alongside the fear of a Hamas-led alternative government, that seems to give hope.”

Abbas, 72, is a staid but personable functionary who plodded up the Palestine Liberation Organization ranks. He has been a top negotiator since Arafat in effect recognized Israel in 1988 and began seeking a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, which Israel occupied in 1969.

In the three years since Arafat’s death, Abbas has proved ineffectual at governance. Hamas won parliamentary elections last year, defeating Abbas’ secular Fatah faction, then as attempts at a unity government foundered, drove Fatah authorities from Gaza in an armed rout this summer.

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Abbas’ sole strategy for ending Israeli occupation is to insist unceasingly on the game he knows best: negotiations.

His latest negotiating partner is 10 years his junior and new to the game. An affable lawyer and former businessman, Olmert entered national politics four years ago and moved up from deputy prime minister after his boss, Ariel Sharon, fell into a coma in January 2006.

Olmert has learned quickly, gaining a reputation as a shrewd politician. But he governs from the shaky middle ground of a broad coalition. His Kadima party consists of defectors from the right-wing Likud party who followed Sharon, and he faces a threat that many may return to Likud if he offers concessions to the Palestinians.

Strains are inevitable. By taking up Abbas’ challenge to negotiate, Olmert has committed himself to a diplomatic venture that will define the rest of his tenure. It will demand the kind of delicate compromises that have broken up previous Israeli coalitions, toppled their leaders and provoked the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

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The third partner in the new peace effort is Bush, but the stakes are not as high for him. Although he declares interest in helping to create a Palestinian state, his power doesn’t ride on it, nor does his legacy, which will be dominated by the Iraq war.

Even so, the outcome depends heavily on what Bush does, because of the United States’ traditional role as broker in Middle East peace talks.

Bush is scheduled to meet separately with Olmert and Abbas at the White House on Monday and again on Wednesday, bracketing the Tuesday conference.

To many observers in the Middle East, the administration’s belated peace initiative appears haphazard, ill-conceived and unlikely to succeed. Yet the Annapolis conference has alarmed and mobilized Olmert’s and Abbas’ hawkish domestic critics.

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Olmert has been accused of using peace talks to try to stave off official inquiries into four corruption allegations against him and his conduct of Israel’s war last year against Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon.

“Annapolis will not save you!” reads a slogan on posters plastered across Israel that depict Olmert behind bars.

Two right-wing parties -- Yisrael Beiteinu, or Israel Our Home, and Shas -- have threatened to quit his coalition if peace talks advance.

The Hamas factor

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The risks for Abbas at home are somewhat different. His Fatah movement is dissatisfied with the peace effort so far but unlikely to force him from office. Instead, it could press him to resume the power-sharing alliance with Hamas, a move that would almost surely end U.S. and Israeli support for peace talks.

And Hamas could sabotage peace negotiations with a single suicide bombing in Israel or a deadly attack on Fatah targets in the West Bank. The Islamic movement mustered 10,000 demonstrators in Gaza recently to brand Abbas a collaborator with the Jews and warn of violence if he concedes anything to Olmert.

Like other political commentators on both sides, Yoel Marcus predicts that Olmert and Abbas will falter under the pressure, leaving the talks paralyzed.

“They look more like two British gentlemen meeting for a drink at the club than tough statesmen who can force the extremists in their camps to accept peace based on mutual concessions and conciliation with the enemy,” he wrote in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

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“I find it hard to imagine Abbas putting his foot down in Gaza, halting terror, dissolving the terrorist organizations and ending the rocket fire,” he said. “I find it hard to imagine Olmert, under a cloud of criminal investigations, getting a quarter of a million true believers to give up the [Palestinian] territories and kiss their settlements goodbye.”

Yet few imagined a year ago that Olmert would get even this far.

He began his term insisting that Israel had no reliable Palestinian partner, then reversed course last November after Abbas arranged a cease-fire in Gaza. It broke down six months later, but by that time the two leaders, under Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s prodding, were meeting regularly at Olmert’s residence in Jerusalem.

It took them several encounters to gain mutual trust, Rice told reporters last month. She said she was impressed by the “chemistry” between them, “and in that sense we have come a long way.”

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A turning point came when Aliza Olmert, an artist whose views are well to the left of her husband’s, joined the two men on a tour of the residence and showed them her study. Abbas was pleasantly surprised by the pro-peace theme in many of her paintings and photographs.

Although Palestinians are wary, Abbas says Olmert is “sincere and serious about peace.”

But whatever understanding the two men have reached amid the smoke of their private conversations has yet to filter down. Their negotiating teams, working in a less trustful climate, have struggled for weeks to draft a statement of principles to guide the peace talks.

The rapport between Olmert and Abbas should be helpful in breaking impasses, said Mark Regev, the Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman.

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“It doesn’t guarantee an agreement, but it improves the chances,” Regev said. “Camp David is an example. When things got stuck there, Barak and Arafat couldn’t get them moving again. . . . Their relationship was atrocious.”

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boudreaux@latimes.com

Times staff writer Paul Richter in Washington contributed to this report.

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