With Olmert Going: What Peace Process?

Thursday, July 31st, 2008

James Besser in Washington

Here’s one of the more puzzling headlines of the month, right off the AP ticker:  “US Trying to salvage Gains in Mideast Talks.”

According to the story, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called top Israel and Palestinian negotiators to Washington this week to “preserve modest momentum” in the U.S.-backed effort to get a deal – any kind of deal, please – by the end of the year and the end of President George W. Bush’s term.

That leads one to wonder: what, exactly, is the administration’s definition of “momentum?”  And will such whimsical headlines continue in the wake of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s Wednesday announcement that he will step down after the Kadima primaries?

Well, probably; on Wednesday the Washington Post wrote that Olmert’s decision to step down and set off an electoral frenzy to replace him is “raising doubts about prospects for peace with the Palestinians and Syria.”

Oh really?  What tipped them off?

Even before Olmert announced he was toast, the peace talks had taken on an almost surrealistic quality. All the major players had a stake in preserving the illusion that a deal was still possible; none had the credibility or the will to actually make that happen.

President George W. Bush continues to say Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking is a strong priority, but he has done next to nothing to back up a secretary of state who took him at his word.  And if there’s a democratic – small “d” – leader with more credibility problems in the world, it’s President Bush.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas continues to be touted as the “moderate” answer to the problem of a radicalized Palestinian population, but more and more he looks like a leader with no followers, impotent in the face of Hamas inroads in the West Bank.

So what happens now is a holding action.

Rice and Co. will still go through the motions of pushing peace efforts, but you could probably count on one hand the number of people who believe the effort is serious.

The Bush administration is deep into lame duck status; the next president will have much more immediate and close-to-home problems on his hands than a stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process, starting with a sour economy and wobbly financial institutions, as well as wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

So while Sen. Barack Obama promises an accelerated peace push if he is elected, don’t place any bets on that actually happening.

Israel will go about the messy and protracted business of picking a new leader, and with former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looking like a pretty good bet to remove the “former” from his title, the next Israeli government could have a very different view of peacemaking.  Olmert may say he can produce some kind of agreement before he leaves office in September, but it’s hard to picture how.

Bush, Olmert and Abbas will talk about the need for a continuing peace process, but their real goals will be to get through the next six to nine months without too much new bloodshed and without any more erosion to public support for the idea of a negotiated peace.

Given factors like Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas, that won’t be easy.

About the Author
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.