Just Say Yes

Published November 24, 2006, issue of November 24, 2006.

Ehud Olmert became Israel’s prime minister by accident last winter, after his boss, Ariel Sharon, succumbed to a stroke. Though elected to the post in his own right two months later, Olmert did not enter office with a great reserve of public faith behind him. He was an accidental premier and was viewed that way. But he had two important assets that gave his nation’s voters hope. One was a vision of a new relationship between Israel and the Palestinians, based on a withdrawal from much of the West Bank. The other was his track record as a canny political operator, someone who might succeed where others had failed in navigating between Israel’s warring left and right wings and creating a stable middle. His public wanted him to succeed. He also had the good wishes of much of the world community, a rarity for an Israeli leader.

His honeymoon was cut short by an event for which he was least prepared: war. The war came unexpectedly, played out badly and ended indecisively, and it appears to have knocked the stuffing out of Olmert. The unprovoked raids by Hamas and Hezbollah killed whatever taste he had for creative risk-taking in Israeli-Palestinian relations. No less important, the war drove his poll numbers into the basement, spooking him and spurring him to tack rightward in hopes of shoring up his traditional base. The result is a new Olmert: suspicious, indecisive and paralyzed.

Olmert’s paralysis is understandable, but it’s something his country can’t afford. Neither, for that matter, can the region or the world. Impatience with the Middle East impasse is reaching frantic levels in capitals around the globe. Leaders from Washington to London to Riyadh and Islamabad are alarmed over the deteriorating situations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the prospect of a nuclear Iran and the increasingly militant mood on the streets of the Muslim world. And for most of those leaders, the essential key to defusing the global tinderbox is progress toward Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Israel disagrees, of course, insisting that the confrontation between Islam and the West has a dozen other root causes. But its protests fall on deaf ears. Nor can it outflank those impatient world leaders, as it has done in the past, by appealing to public opinion in their countries. World public opinion is, if anything, even more hostile than its leaders.

Olmert knows all this. His current strategy seems to be to rely on America to protect him from the world’s impatience. That, of course, is chapter one in Israel’s diplomatic playbook. But the rules have changed, and Olmert, it’s alarmingly clear, hasn’t noticed. The Bush administration is discredited at home and abroad. President Bush can barely save himself. All of Washington is now waiting for the report of the Baker-Hamilton task force on how to get America out of the mess Bush created in Iraq.

Baker is unlikely, as our Nathan Guttman reported some weeks ago, to call for a renewed Israeli-Palestinian peace push as a step toward defusing the region. But he is expected to call on the administration to reach out to Syria and Iran and seek their cooperation in stabilizing the region, and that will amount to much the same thing. Syria and Iran will have their prices for helping America out of its jam, and they won’t be to Israel’s liking.

Israel’s answer, raised by Olmert during his Washington trip this month, is to build an alliance of moderate Sunni states, such as Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. That makes sense from Israel’s point of view, as a way to turn the tables on Iran. But the price will turn out to be identical: re-entering a peace process with the Palestinians. Wherever Olmert turns, the answer is the same. There is, it appears, no escape.

But what is it that Olmert is trying to escape? The Europeans proposed an Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire, new talks and a Palestinian unity government on terms acceptable to Israel; Olmert turned them down flat. The Arab League is offering a regional peace with full normalization, on terms that Israel won’t accept but could begin to discuss; Olmert has turned them down flat, too. Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, speaking through Defense Minister Amir Peretz, has asked for new talks and won apparent agreement from Hamas for an end to rocket attacks; Olmert scolded Peretz for daring to talk with Abbas. Olmert’s top aides, including his foreign minister, justice minister and vice premier, have asked him to come up with a plan — any plan — to launch a diplomatic initiative before one is imposed from the outside; Olmert made it clear that he has no intention of doing any such thing.

Having lost his nerve last summer, Olmert seems to have fallen back on the formula of his onetime mentor, Yitzhak Shamir: Just say No.

Olmert has shown before that he’s capable of better. Right now, Israel and the world need him to rise to the occasion and find a way to say Yes.

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