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ISRAELI-PALESTINIAN PEACE TRAIN

Olmert & Peres: 'Israel Will Be Initiating New Moves To Advance Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process'

At Joint News Conference, Israeli Prime Minister Appears to Co-Opt Labor's Approach To Two-State Solution

Egyptian & Jordanian Foreign Ministers: 'Arab World Is Ready For Peace With Israel In Return For Total Withdrawal To 1967 Lines'

President Peres with Egyptian & Jordanian Foreign Ministers

In Jerusalem, momentum is building for the international meeting to discuss implementing the two state solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict slated for this fall. In calling for the conference, U.S. President George Bush has apparently pulled some strings in all quarters to create a constructive atmosphere. IsraCast sees signs that Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has implemented a new agenda. He has discarded his unilateralism opting for risks and concessions in bilateral talks with the Palestinians resembling that of the Labor party. This approach may also be designed to influence Israeli public opinion.

All aboard the Israeli-Palestinian peace train, the engine is warming up and about to pull out of the station. All the signs point to momentum building for a new and vigorous attempt to resuscitate the moribund process. The current drive has been made possible by the Hamas split with Fatah in the Palestinian camp. Within forty- eight hours, peace envoy Tony Blair was welcomed warmly in Jerusalem and Ramallah. The former British prime minister and was then followed by the foreign ministers of Egypt and Jordan offering ' peace with the Arab world in return for an Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 lines'. For his part Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, the Fatah leader of the West Bank has pledged to halt terrorism and make peace. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert also rose to the occasion; at a news conference with President Shimon Peres, Olmert declared: 'I am determined to create a track for serious talks with Mahmoud Abbas, the leader of the Palestinian Authority. I want to make clear that Abbas is ready to bear full responsibility and to take the risks involved in a peace process'.

PM Ehud Olmert (Photo: Amit Shabi)

The Prime Minister spoke as if he really meant it - until now Olmert agreed with Ariel Sharon's term that Abbas was as weak as a 'plucked chick'. In fact, Olmert was the driving force behind former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's unilateral withdrawal from Gaza. On becoming prime minister, Olmert pushed for a unilateral pullout from part of the West Bank because he felt Abbas was not a viable peace partner. But now Israel's leader has jettisoned his unilateralism and bilateral talks with the Fatah Palestinians is on his agenda. And after once saying 'I have no agenda' Olmert made clear that he certainly has one now. The threat of a final scathing Winograd report into his handling of the Second Lebanon War can be a prod to diplomatic action.

At his recent meeting with Abbas, Olmert had reached some 'quiet understandings' that he did not disclose. It is a follow-up to releasing 255 Palestinian prisoners, transferring hundreds of millions of dollars in Palestinian tax money and easing check points on the West Bank. Latest reports say Israel also agrees to more weapons being supplied to Abbas forces. Olmert was on a roll: ' I don't say there will be no risks for Israel or that the Palestinians, or we for that matter, have eradicated all the terrorism. But I do contend that we are strong enough to take risks in order to give a chance for the peace process which I want with all my might. I am convinced that the people of Israel also believe in giving the Palestinian process a chance.' But apparently keeping the Arab peace initiative in mind, Olmert stressed the process would be conducted 'between us and the Palestinians'. If the rest of the Arab states were ready to follow Egypt and Jordan making peace with Israel that's great. However, Israel would not sit idly by waiting for them. And then he added: ' We are leading the process, pushing it forward, initiating moves and we won't stop because we are convinced that peace progress serves Israel's interests. We are convinced we can do it'. At their joint news conference at the President's Mansion, Peres and Olmert sounded like a mutual admiration society. Although Peres has always been the ultimate peace campaigner, there could be no mistaking the music from Olmert- both were definitely in tune. Olmert sounded ever so much like Peres - it was if he was trying to blur the difference between Kadima and Labor, Peres' former party. Moreover, it was as if Olmert was out to co-opt Labor's approach to implementing the two-state solution with the Palestinians. The Prime Minister, with Peres at his side, was telling the country, there were no real differences now between Kadima and Labor.

If this is the case, Olmert who has trailed the Likud's Bibi Netanyahu and Labor's Ehud Barak in opinion polls, has embarked on a new strategy. He may be trying to divide Israel's political debate into two camps - his accelerated Palestinian negotiations with major concessions to the Palestinians on a two-state solution or the more hard-line approach of the Likud. If Olmert makes progress with Abbas and Abbas reins in West Bank terror attacks, who knows what the polls will indicate after the final Winograd report on the Second Lebanon War? Will Labor wish to topple the Olmert government under such circumstances?

As for Peres upstaging Olmert, this may not be the case at all. In fact, Olmert seemed to leave the door open for the President to play an active role in peace moves. Aside from Peres diplomatic skills and popularity, by employing the President as a roving ambassador Olmert could also take down his main Kadima rival Tzipi Livni a peg or two in the party.

The Prime Minister can apparently count on the Arab League to provide moral support for an Israeli-Palestinian settlement. The Arab League sent the foreign ministers of the two Arab states that have made peace with Israel with their offer of 'territory for peace'. Israel rolled out the red carpet - Egypt's Ahmed Aboul Gheit and Jordan's Abdullah Al-Khatib reciprocated. In their public statements and private meetings with Peres, Olmert and Livni the Arab foreign ministers declared 'count us in , the time is ripe the Arab world to make peace with Israel has to cut a deal with the Palestinians'. All Israel had to do is withdraw to the lines of 1967 in a territory for peace deal. They also stressed that Gaza would have to be part of the Palestinian state with 'territorial contiguity' between Gaza and the West Bank. For the first time, the Arab League appears ready to play the role of facilitator rather than spoiler role in Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts. The two foreign ministers linked the Israeli- Palestinian gambit as bolstering regional stability under threat from Al Qaeda, Iraq and a nuclear armed Iran. It goes without saying the Bush administration, the Quartet in tow, will be working behind the scenes prodding the two sides for a breakthrough before it leaves office in little over a year. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's comment that Israel must get out of the West Bank is a sign of things to come and of a determined American effort ti show something for its efforts. Rice will be arriving shortly to put her agenda on the table. The Quartet's point man the energetic Tony Blair can also be expected to wield his prestige and initiative.

So the pieces are falling in to place for this fall's international meeting. At this stage nearly all the parties are in sync, which Dennis Ross says is a vital ingredient for Middle East peace. But is the Palestinian street on board this Israeli-Palestinian peace train that is leaving the station? What is its final destination and will a majority of Palestinians be on board the idea of Palestine for the Palestinian and Israel for the Jews? So far not even the moderate Abbas and his West Bank Prime Minister Salam Fayyad have recognized Israel as a Jewish state. Two years after Israel's unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, Olmert's baby, a Maariv poll reveals 59% of Israelis, view the pullout as a mistake. No wonder after the Palestinians exploited the area to launch over one-thousand rockets and mortars into Israel. The Israeli public will need some convincing before it again follows Olmert's lead. The Prime Minister will have his work cut out not only in forging a viable settlement with the Palestinians - he will have to regain his lost credibility with Israeli voters to rally the political support necessary for selling it to the country.

As important as the Israeli-Palestinian track may be, the Iranian nuclear threat looming ever closer on the horizon is still the main event which threatens the entire region. Progress toward an Israeli-Palestinian accord would facilitate regional support if push comes to shove in America's confrontation with Iran.

David Essing

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