Monday, March 12, 2007

Olmert's gambit

PM Olmert is in deep trouble, two recent polls show that he is extremely unpopular. In one poll he obtained a mere 3% of public support compared to 30% for Benjamin Netanyahu, Head of Likud, and 1% for Amir Peretz, Head of Labor. If an election were to be held today, Likud would win easily with at least 40 seats. However, Olmert has a majority in his coalition with Labor in the Knesset, and so he is likely to remain PM for another year or so, at least until the Winograd Committee reports and criticizes his conduct in the past Lebanon War. In order to retain power he is playing a dangerous game.
Tonight (Sunday) Olmert met with Pres. Abbas of the PA in Jerusalem. Noone expected anything to come from this meeting, it is mainly as PM Olmert's spokeman said to keep talking. Abbas' spokeman also said nothing is expected from the meeting. So why meet? Olmert is trying to give the impression that something is going on, that he is indeed pushing for peace now that the Mecca agreement between Hamas and Fatah has almost resulted in a unity Government in the PA. This is what the EU and the Americans want, some sign of progress. But, to show how tenuous this agreement is, today there was heavy fighting between the two sides in Gaza, and several gunmen were killed. Also, the two sides cannot agree over who to appoint as minister of the interior in the new Government, and this has prevented formation of the Government, and left the PA without any legal Administration.
So if there is no movement with the PA, even the release of Cpl. Shalit is not under Abbas' control. How can Olmert show he is making progress. Today for the first time the PM praised the so-called Saudi Plan, that was rejected out-of-hand by his predecessor Ariel Sharon when it was first presented in 2002. This Plan not only side-steps the much more diplomatically even-handed American Road Map Plan, but as currently constituted it also requires Israel to withdraw to the pre-1967 ceasefire lines and to accept the "right of return" of the Palestinian refugees (in other words it is an Arab plan). Although Israel, through its FM Tzipi Livni, has said that these conditions are unacceptable, nevertheless Olmert has now reversed track a bit, and has praised this Saudi initiative. Livni has also warned the EU that dropping the three Quartet conditions for recognizing the PA Unity Government would adversely affect all contacts.
There are two reasons why Olmert may be doing this now, first because his popularity is so low that he is clutching at straws, he wants to show he is actually doing something. And second this may be the first move in a new situation in which Saudi Arabia and other Sunni countries realize that they need to have some progress in talks with Israel before Iran gets too powerful and develops a nuclear capability that also threatens them. Either way, Olmert is playing with fire, let's hope he doesn't burn his hands, or ours in the process.


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