Perhaps the most inexplicable aspect of Ehud Olmert's largely failed three years as prime minister of Israel was his extensive yet totally unproductive series of meetings with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen). Not a great deal appears to have happened there.
So unpromising was this summit institution that the Israeli political right, then in opposition, never bothered to protest. After all, here was a government that initially advocated unilateral withdrawal precisely because Israel "didn't have a partner". Once that option failed due precisely to Palestinian behavior in Gaza, why should the public believe there suddenly is a partner?
As the Annapolis talks proceeded in the course of 2008, no serious progress was registered and nothing was put down on paper. Olmert never dismantled outposts, not to mention settlements, and never withdrew from territory, while Abbas never budged on the core issues of Jerusalem and refugees. If anything, Abbas made more progress than Olmert: the Palestinians at least began seriously restructuring their West Bank security forces; Israel barely released a few hundred Palestinian prisoners.
That this ritual of genial paralysis became institutionalized is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that the Olmert-Abbas track was paralleled by an equally unproductive negotiating track between Israeli FM Tzipi Livni and PLO Chief Negotiator Ahmed Qurei (Abu Ala). While Olmert "talked the talk" of a two-state solution involving considerable Israeli concessions and he renewed final status negotiations for the first time since 2000, he proved incapable of breaking new ground in peace talks with the PLO despite the potential backing of at least 70 members of Knesset.
Here and there Olmert was more successful in alternative pursuits. On the Syrian front, he both reopened peace negotiations and reportedly directed the bombing of a Syrian-North Korean nuclear project--without one initiative adversely affecting the other. And his government can be said to have "failed less" in the economic sphere than those of parallel economies in the West confronting the global economic crisis.
Olmert's peace process failures are intimately linked to his close relations with the Bush administration. Olmert either never grasped the full extent of President George W. Bush's Middle East blunders or, due to a lack of understanding of the real underpinnings of the US-Israel relationship, he simply feared to confront Bush even when American policies that proved disastrous for Israel were unpopular in the US. Thus Olmert failed to challenge Bush when the latter refused to provide American auspices for Israeli negotiations with Syria, thereby severely limiting the scope of an initiative with far-reaching strategic implications for both Washington and Jerusalem. And he failed to recruit serious American involvement--in the form of permanent high-level peace emissaries and the necessary pressures on both sides--in an Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
Olmert's two greatest drawbacks as a national leader turned out to be his lack of solid strategic thinking and his apparent corruption at the personal level. The first drawback severely constrained his capacity to navigate successfully the two wars he mistakenly initiated, to draw the US into more serious involvement in Israel-Arab peace processes and in general to manage the challenge presented by Iran and its Islamist allies on Israel's borders. As a consequence, his government was weakened and therefore less capable of handling a robust peace process with the Palestinians that requires Israeli concessions.
Currently, we are witnessing the climax of Olmert's extended mismanagement of the Gilad Shalit affair. Olmert nearly mortgaged a portion of the country's security and possibly the balance of power between Hamas and Fateh to the fate of a single soldier. I recall asking Olmert at a closed meeting about a year ago what his strategy was for dealing with Hamas in Gaza. His answer: well, now and again we close the crossings, we retaliate for rockets fired at us, we boycott Gaza economically. In short, he didn't really understand the concept of a coherent strategy for Gaza.
Olmert's second drawback as a national leader, his apparent corruption, brought about the early end of his career as prime minister. Not as early as would have been healthy for the system: Olmert clung to power cynically long after a first indictment was certain, precipitated the fall of his government and new elections that his party failed to win, and in general lost total credibility with the public. Had he behaved less selfishly, Tzipi Livni (as prime minister) might still be pursuing final status negotiations with Abbas and Qurei.
Yet it's doubtful she would get anywhere. Herein lies an important lesson: when it comes to Israeli-Palestinian peace prospects, Israel does not have a monopoly on weak leadership.- Published 23/3/2009 © bitterlemons.org
Ehud Olmert, who was elected three years ago as prime minister of Israel, will be remembered here as someone with an unprecedented and unique ability to combine peaceful and positive rhetoric with hostile and aggressive action vis-a-vis the Palestinians and Arabs in general.
A veteran supporter of the "greater Israel" ideology, Olmert nevertheless declared his intention to end the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands and allow for the emergence of a Palestinian state after he was elected prime minister. In practical terms, however, he proved to be among those who did the most on the ground to prevent the possibility of two states ever emerging.
In spite of his rhetorical departure from Ariel Sharon's unilateral approach, in practice Olmert continued his predecessor's policy. He exacerbated the division, both geographic and political, between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip by restricting the movement of Palestinians between the two areas of their future state and later by putting Gaza under a siege to de-link it from the West Bank and link it instead to Egypt. In parallel, he continued consolidating Israeli control over most of the West Bank with as unswerving a commitment to wholesale settlement expansion as the Palestinian territories have ever witnessed.
Sharon's open and Olmert's unspoken commitment to a unilateral strategy that disintegrated the Palestinian territories and advocated consistent and aggressive settlement expansion in addition to the building of the wall have ensured that the prospect of a Palestinian state is more distant than ever. At times, Olmert pursued this strategy in the face of international criticism, e.g., in the case of occupied East Jerusalem, where there has been an increase in the expropriation of Palestinian land for settlement construction and infrastructure in an aggressive attempt to change the reality on the ground.
Even the Annapolis conference and process, which Olmert encouraged US President George W. Bush to launch and pursue and which provided him with endless opportunities to fill the airwaves with optimistic statements, was only used to undermine Olmert's counterpart on the Palestinian side, Mahmoud Abbas. The latter's status was consistently degraded when every meeting of the two leaders or their negotiating teams was accompanied or preceded by news of further settlement activity on occupied territory. This not only undermined the possibility of a two-state solution but isolated a Palestinian leadership committed to such an outcome and contributed to the shift in the balance of power in favor of the opposition led by Hamas.
Olmert's three years in power also witnessed two devastating wars, in Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza in 2008-2009. Whatever the Israeli justifications for these wars, they both failed to achieve any of the stated political and military objectives and both constituted some of the most brutal violations of civilian rights in those places, inflicting a gross number of civilian casualties and suffering as well as damage to civilian infrastructure.
Olmert probably got away with the many contradictions between his rhetoric and actions because of the presence of an extremely biased American president. President Bush managed to confuse the terrorist organizations responsible for the September 11 attacks on the US--who were roundly condemned by everyone, including in the Arab and Muslim world--with the legitimate struggle of the Palestinian people to end the illegal and belligerent military occupation of their homeland. As a result he was exploited fully by the Israeli leaders present during his term in office, Sharon and Olmert.
Palestinians, in spite of the victory of the rightwing bloc in the last Israeli elections, are hopeful that the failure of Olmert's policies combined with the change in Washington will see some lessons be drawn. These should include practical movement toward the creation of a Palestinian state and an end to the Israeli occupation in accordance with the resolutions of the United Nations Security Council and international legality. Such movement will require, before anything else, a complete cessation of Israeli settlement activity in occupied territory and must be followed by the withdrawal of the Israeli army and settlers.
Only then can a Palestinian state emerge to live in peace and prosperity alongside Israel.- Published 23/3/2009 © bitterlemons.org
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is vice-president for community outreach at Birzeit University and a former Palestinian Authority minister of planning. He holds a PhD in Middle East politics from the University of Durham.
AN ISRAELI VIEW
Olmert's Palestinian failures
by Efraim Inbar
In 2006, the new Kadima party ran an election campaign advocating unilateralism on the Palestinian issue, arguing that the 2005 withdrawal from Gaza and from parts of Samaria should be emulated in other parts of the West Bank. Ehud Olmert, Kadima's leader by default (after Ariel Sharon's incapacitation), and his colleagues, particularly his future foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, extolled the virtues of unilateralism, which was based on the premise that the PLO was not a credible partner for negotiations and lacked the ability to implement an agreement. Therefore, Israel should unilaterally define its borders in order to maintain a Jewish and democratic state and disengage from the violent, corrupt and inept Palestinian society.
This approach dovetailed conventional wisdom in Israel that displayed an increasing level of skepticism about reaching a peace agreement with the dysfunctional Palestinian national movement. The years of Palestinian terrorism since September 2000, the chaos within the Palestinian Authority and the ascendance of the radical Hamas in Palestinian politics led to a sober assessment that the Palestinian national movement was incapable of making the concessions needed for a historical compromise with the Zionist movement, even at the cost of painful Israeli concessions. To a large extent, this general mood explains the success of Kadima in the 2006 elections.
As the 2005 summer withdrawal from Gaza was fully coordinated with the Americans, the Olmert government's initial preferences were in line with the policies of the Bush administration, which showed reluctance to get involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and shared Israel's skepticism about the Palestinians as a serious interlocutor. Furthermore, Washington displayed unilateralism in its own foreign policy.
Yet the fiasco of the Second Lebanon War (July-August 2006) and Olmert's legal troubles diverted the attention of the prime minister to political survival. Olmert succeeded in politically surviving the reverberations of the failure in Lebanon partly by renewing negotiations with the PLO--a move backed by a sudden change of heart on the part of the American administration, led not surprisingly by the State Department. The diplomatic vehicle was the Annapolis process, convened in November 2007 by the US to jumpstart negotiations between Israel and the PLO under the problematic assumption that progress was needed toward a two-state solution. The ambitious initiative even set a one year deadline for reaching an agreement.
Annapolis was, however, a hopeless diplomatic exercise, as the PLO retained its political impotence. Actually, the planned product--a shelf agreement--tacitly recognized the futility of the process. In other words, the US and the international community realized the most that could be achieved was an agreement to be placed on the "shelf" until the Palestinians displayed the political acumen for its implementation. Nevertheless, Olmert and Livni wasted many hours with their PLO interlocutors, continuing to pay lip service to the two-state solution paradigm despite its obsolescence.
Annapolis reinforced the view that the Palestinians are unable to make the needed compromises. Olmert squarely blamed the Palestinians for the failure. Ironically, the reluctance of the US and the international community to admit that the two-state paradigm is simply defunct will prolong Palestinian suffering, which can only be alleviated by the adoption of alternative workable schemes. The Annapolis process caused limited harm and can be viewed as part of a conflict management approach to "lower the flames". Indeed, most Israelis were not perturbed even by the news of discussing the partition of Jerusalem, which over two-thirds oppose, because the Annapolis process was mostly seen as smoke without fire.
The Olmert government's gravest blunder in the Palestinian context was the mishandling of Gaza. Due to misguided American prodding, Olmert committed the original sin of allowing Hamas, an organization intent on destroying Israel, to take part in the 2006 Palestinian elections. The Hamas electoral victory aggravated the political paralysis within the PA and was a prelude to the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip in June 2007.
In the meantime, Gazans have endlessly fired thousands of Qassam rockets into Israel, making the lives of hundreds of thousands of Israelis unbearable. Hamas' rule in Gaza brought about an escalation in the number and lethality of missiles aimed at Israeli civilians. Instead of taking harsh economic and military measures to force the Gazans to behave, the Olmert government foolishly continued to supply water and electricity as well as to allow goods to enter Gaza. Moreover, after failing to end the Qassam threat by limited military responses, the Olmert government entered into indirect negotiations with Hamas via Egypt to secure a fragile ceasefire. During the ceasefire Hamas, an Iranian proxy, increased its military capabilities and consolidated its grip over Gaza, rendering the split in the Palestinian body politic a fait accompli.
When Hamas further escalated its attacks on Israeli civilian targets after the ceasefire ended in November 2008, Olmert's government finally took serious military action the next month. While the military performed much better than in 2006, the strategic direction of Operation Cast Lead was just as bad. Hamas was not hurt enough and the missile fire continued. Israel's failure to administer a more serious blow to Hamas disappointed the US and the moderate Arab regimes. Olmert's failures in Lebanon and in Gaza are strategically more ominous that his predictable lack of success in reaching an agreement with the PLO.
As Olmert departs, he bequeaths his successors the need to deal with Hamas in Gaza and to grope for alternative ways to address the perennial Palestinian issue.- Published 23/3/2009 © bitterlemons.org
Efraim Inbar is professor of political studies at Bar-Ilan University and director of the Begin-Sadat (BESA) Center for Strategic Studies.
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
The accidental prime minister
by Mustafa Abu Sway
Ehud Olmert would probably never have made it to the office of prime minister were it not for two events related to former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon: the creation of Kadima and Sharon's stroke and subsequent coma. Sharon created Kadima, a "centrist" political party, at the expense of other parties, most importantly Labor and Likud, with the latter only recovering during the recent elections, providing Binyamin Netanyahu with a chance to become, once again, prime minister.
Olmert continued Sharon's policy of hafrada (apartheid in Afrikaans) that aimed at unilaterally separating Israelis from Palestinians by building a separation wall deep inside occupied Palestinian territory. This wall has devastated Palestinian life in ways that cannot be explained here but are the reasons the International Court of Justice issued an advisory opinion calling for it to be removed. (That ruling has been ignored, but even if it had been a UN Security Council resolution, it would still be collecting dust. Israel functions with total disregard to Palestinian rights, even when they are supported by international law.)
Olmert paid lip service to the two-state solution while, in practice and similar to other Israeli prime ministers, he allowed Jewish colonies in the West Bank, which includes East Jerusalem, to grow by confiscating more and more Palestinian land. According to B'Tselem, the Israeli human rights watchdog, "The sharp changes Israel has made to the map of the West Bank make a viable Palestinian state impossible." Recent statements by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' advisors indicate that at no point did Olmert present a map or a detailed plan for the implementation of a two-state solution.
As an excuse for not implementing the roadmap, Olmert used the "Abbas is a weak leader" mantra that had been trotted out by FM Tzipi Livni on numerous occasions. Yet it was Olmert who rendered Abbas weak by not being courageous enough to do what is necessary for peace. The desperate visits by the Palestinian president to Olmert's residence did not yield anything except humiliation. Future Palestinian leaders should avoid such unnecessary diplomacy. A Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza Strip is, after all, an Israeli interest. Peace should not be left to Israeli negotiations with the Palestinians. Israel should be given an ultimatum to implement the two-state solution in full, after which Palestinians are justified in subscribing to alternative models, including the one democratic state model. The Quartet should play a direct role in conducting a referendum on the solution in both societies.
During his tenure, Olmert also pursued a bellicose policy toward regional players. He waged two wars, the first on Hizballah in Lebanon and the second on Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Israel failed in both wars to achieve the declared (deliberately vague, in the case of Gaza) political objectives, yet they both resulted in massive destruction, many massacres and thousands of civilian casualties. Richard Falk, the United Nations special rapporteur on Palestinian human rights, described Israel's actions in Gaza as "war crimes". Israeli media have reported, in the last couple of days, that many Israeli soldiers publically confessed that Palestinian civilians where knowingly targeted during the war on Gaza. Furthermore, the war on Gaza was planned six months in advance and was not a reaction to any specific event happening immediately before the war.
Olmert's blockade on Gaza, before and after the December 2008 war, brought the Palestinian people there to the brink of human catastrophe. The extent of collective punishment against the Gaza Strip, the epitome of suffering, is underscored by a policy that prevented pasta (as in Italian macaroni) from reaching Gaza. I am still pondering the possible double use of pasta. What is the wisdom of pasta-less "humanitarian" aid?
In his final days as prime minister, Olmert seemed anxious to conclude a deal with Hamas for the release of Israeli POW Gilad Shalit. Suddenly, however, Olmert decided that he would not go ahead with an exchange of prisoners because there were "red lines" that no one should cross. It is not clear what these red lines are and why they appeared now. A final peace resolution will anyway mean closing the Palestinian prisoners' file and releasing them all. Despite Olmert's position, Haaretz reported that Hamas is still seeking continued, indirect negotiations for a prisoner exchange.
Ehud Olmert resigned because of corruption charges that he will continue to face after a new government is sworn in. The annals of history, however, will level different charges at him.- Published 23/3/2009 © bitterlemons.org
Dr. Mustafa Abu Sway teaches at al-Quds University.
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