Clearly, the conduct of negotiations by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s government with Syria, the Palestinian Authority, and Hamas, has an Israeli political dimension. Yet it is easy to misunderstand this relationship.
Olmert’s unpopularity and personal involvement with strong corruption allegations give him an incentive to conduct such talks. His basic argument is: I’m engaged in such important efforts to achieve peace as to render unimportant all these other petty issues. Stop distracting me.
But two other neglected points must be added. First, this message is aimed at the political left and the Israeli media most of all. By saying he’s working for peace, Olmert believes—with good reason—that they won’t criticize him. Second, though, this same gambit makes him more unpopular with the right.
Additionally, Israeli public opinion is generally cynical. It isn’t against negotiations and very much wants peace but is doubtful that Syria, Fatah, or Hamas are willing to make real peace.
Consequently, Olmert’s activist policy on talks also has negative effects on his domestic popularity and political support.
In brief, then, Olmert may be influenced by political considerations but the result is not all positive, nor is his diplomatic strategy by any means responsible for his survival. Parliamentary politics are far more important in this regard. He has a majority coalition, his partners are afraid of elections, and his party colleagues know that his mismanagement would lead to their destruction in case of elections. These points--not rushing to talks, sometimes overestimating their results, or making huge concessions--are the main reasons why Olmert has remained in office.
Here there enters an important irony. The fact is that—for reasons which cannot be fully covered in this short article—Hamas, Hizballah, Iran, and Syria don’t want to make peace with Israel, while Fatah (and hence the Palestinian Authority, PA) is entrapped in a mixture of rejection and, to the extent that some of its leaders are more moderate, weakness which prevents it from doing so.
Given this reality, Olmert and other Israeli leaders know that achieving agreements is unlikely. Consequently, they can engage in negotiations and offer concessions in the relative security that they will not have to implement deals. This is not to imply they are motivated by cynicism—they’d prefer success--but that’s the situation in which they work.
There has been a withering and heated criticism of the Olmert government from the right, sometimes crossing the border to incitement. Yet this storm has been based on the words of Olmert and the government. It is much harder to show that their actual deeds have involved extreme unilateral concessions, jeopardizing the country’s security, or giving away assets for selfish political gain. The talks have remained just that, talks. And there is an important structural reason in terms of the other side’s positions, interests, and needs why this has been so.
An additional factor in this situation is a search to meet shorter-term goals. Even granted that negotiations will not succeed in achieving total peace and an end to the conflict, certain things might be gained which benefit both Israel and the government. In many cases, there can be a debate over specific ideas but they are not irrational ones.
Most important is how this works in Israel-PA talks. There is a broad consensus in Israel that the country’s interests require the survival of the PA, whose replacement by Hamas in the West Bank would create a more dangerous and violent situation. Equally, it is vital to give the PA a higher capacity to block terrorism, improve its people’s well-being, and reduce the level of direct conflict. Talks, easing tensions, some concessions, and allowing the PA to get resources it needs are worthwhile even for such partial successes. And, of course, by showing its flexibility and desire for peace, Israel also improves its relations with the West.
Talks with Syria have a different but parallel set of criteria. On one hand, there is the hope (which this author believes mistaken) that somehow, no matter how unlikely, this might somehow lead to peace and to the detachment of Syria from its alliance with Iran. Yet there are also more modest expectations.
It is important to remember that Defense Minister Ehud Barak has long believed that advancing on the Syrian track is a way to sidestep the deadlock he perceives on the Palestinian track and gain leverage over the Palestinians. This was his policy as prime minister in 1999.
Another goal is to give Syria an incentive to keep the Israel-Lebanon border quiet, reining in Hizballah to avoid destroying talks which also benefit itself (though the Syrian regime is uninterested in achieving peace with Israel).
In contrast to the PA policy, however, the Syria initiative arguably undermined U.S.-Israel relations to some extent.
Any talks with Hamas offer far less in all respects, which is one reason why they have lagged behind the other two tracks.
Finally, the idea that the problem in negotiations is the Olmert government is too weak to make peace should be laid to rest. This is superficially appealing yet unquestionable if Olmert could show any real progress he would be much stronger politically. And if he fell his successors would probably pursue roughly similar policies—definitely so on the PA track. Olmert’s problems stem not from his negotiations policies, while his negotiations’ policies stem only partly from his political problems.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal.
His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition, Viking-Penguin); the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan); and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley).
A slightly different version of this article appeared in Bitter Lemons,
Reprinted with permission.
Professor Barry Rubin,
Director, Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center
Editor, Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal
Editor, Turkish Studies