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Olmert's crisis erodes US, Palestinian hopes for peace
Published in The Saudi Gazette on 31 - 05 - 2008

The political crisis threatening to topple Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and to trigger new elections threatens to derail already slow-moving efforts to reach a peace deal with the Palestinians by the end of the year, said analysts and Israeli, Palestinian and Western officials on Thursday.
The turmoil comes at what may be the worst possible time for the Bush administration, which sees the few months remaining before the US presidential election in November as the narrow window for reaching a deal on Palestinian statehood.
Olmert has so far defied a demand by his main coalition partner, Defense Minister Ehud Barak's left-leaning Labor Party, to leave office over allegations he took envelopes stuffed with $150,000 in cash over 15 years from a Jewish-American businessman. Olmert and the businessman have denied wrongdoing.
Even if Olmert manages to face down the calls to step down, it does not bode well for the peace process because “he will be absorbed by internal political matters and the negotiations with the Palestinians will be put to the side,” said Arab-Israeli political analyst Wadie Abu Nassar.
Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas had relaunched peace negotiations to great fanfare at a US-hosted international conference in November.
Israeli officials close to Olmert, speaking on condition of anonymity, said his strategy will be to try to push ahead with peace negotiations as if nothing has changed and hope that the corruption investigation does not end in charges against him.
Israeli officials close to Olmert, speaking on condition of anonymity, said his strategy would be to try to push ahead with peace negotiations as if nothing has changed and hope that the corruption investigation does not end in charges against him.
But amid the political uncertainty, Olmert could have even less room to maneuver in terms of both the final-status negotiations and in meeting US demands that he ease travel and trade restrictions for Palestinians in the occupied West Bank.
“It can't go on as usual,” said a senior Israeli official.
Abu Nassar said he doubted that the US administration would put pressure on the Israeli government for progress in the talks despite the January 2009 target date for a deal set by President George W. Bush.
“The Americans never put pressure on Israel, especially during a political crisis,” he said. “In any case Olmert has not given Abbas anything in their talks except nice words.”
The Arab-Israeli analyst said the best-case scenario now for the Palestinians would be early elections “as soon as possible”, even if they bring to power hawkish former premier Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the right-wing Likud party.
But with early elections looming, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and her centrist Kadima party may be cautious of making commitments that could give ammunition to the Likud as Netanyahu leads in opinion polls, Israeli officials said.
Abu Nassar noted that despite his hardline rhetoric, Netanyahu, then prime minister, negotiated the 1998 Wye River agreement with the Palestinians that led to an Israeli pullback from some parts of the occupied West Bank.
“When you go into elections, you have to look tough,” said a Western diplomat.
“We worry about this, yes,” said Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat. “If they go to early elections, we don't want them to look tough at our expense in terms of settlements, incursions and roadblocks.”
Erekat called the crisis an “internal Israeli matter”, but said his side was worried about the future of the talks launched in November.
“Any way you look at it, if somebody sneezes in Tel Aviv, I get the flu in Jericho,” Erekat said, referring to the Palestinians. “I'm the first to be affected by the internal crisis. Whenever Israel witnessed similar crises (in the past), this was translated to more difficulties for us. I hope this will not be the case this time.”
Barak warned on Wednesday that he was prepared to bring down the governing coalition and force early elections if Olmert did not make way for a successor from within his centrist Kadima party.
Other Israeli officials described some of the negotiators as distraught and paralyzed by the uncertainty.
A senior European diplomat close to the talks said the turmoil comes at a “very bad time”, undermining chances that Barak, as defense minister and with an eye to elections, will be willing to take risks, like removing roadblocks and checkpoints to boost the standing of Abbas.
“We are heading in a direction where it will be far more difficult to get things done,” said the diplomat, who has been working with Barak and the Palestinians on the checkpoint issue.
Efraim Inbar, a political science professor at Israel's Bar-Ilan University, said it was obvious that any prime minister facing corruption allegations would not be able to focus his attentions on peacemaking.
“And we have to admit that the peace process has already been buried several times before this affair,” Inbar said.
“In these troubled circumstances, negotiating peace is a political and diplomatic bluff.”
The Israeli defense minister himself charged that Olmert was now too distracted to handle affairs of state, that now include renewed peace negotiations with Syria, as well as dealing with the Islamist groups Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon, both of which are holding Israeli troops.
“In view of the situation and the heavy challenges that Israel faces – Hamas, Hezbollah, Syria and Iran, the abducted soldiers and the peace process – I don't think that the prime minister can simultaneously run the government and take care of his personal affairs,” he said.
Palestinian analyst Zakaria Al-Qaq said it would be “naive” to imagine there were any real peace prospects in the first place that could be undermined by Olmert's difficulties.
“From the start the negotiations were not serious and did not make progress. There is hardly any chance of reaching an accord,” he said.
Qaq said the only real difference was that everyone involved now had an excuse for the talks going nowhere.
“What is happening offers the perfect pretext for all parties to ascribe their failure to the political crisis in Israel,” he said.
Another senior Israeli official compared both the Palestinian and Syrian tracks to riding a stationary bicycle. “You sweat a lot but you don't go anywhere,” the official said.
Israeli officials said Livni would continue to meet regularly with her Palestinian counterpart. The officials said indirect negotiations with Syria would resume after Olmert returns on June 6 from a visit to Washington.
“The meetings will continue, but to make concessions you need a strong government. A looming election makes this government weak,” said a senior Israeli official.
While talks with the Palestinians will continue, decision-making will be “put on hold” until spring 2009, dashing Washington's timetable for a deal before Bush leaves office in January, the official added.
Western diplomats said they saw little positive results that could come out of the current crisis in terms of the Israeli-Palestinians negotiations.
“One way or another, Olmert's damaged,” limiting his ability to stand up to coalition partners like ultra-Orthodox Shas, which has threatened to bolt if Olmert makes sweeping concessions to the Palestinians, one of the diplomats said.
A handover to Livni, even if only temporary, would be a way to preserve the current talks with the Palestinians, a key American objective.
So far Washington has maintained its commitment to the peace process despite Israel's political turbulence.
“I certainly am not going to try and play pundit in terms of domestic Israeli politics,” State Department spokesman Tom Casey said on Wednesday.
“I don't think the US government ought to be speculating about what are essentially internal political decisions in a major ally.”


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