Olmert plows ahead on peace talks

Israeli prime minister resigns from his post, but vows to pursue a deal with Palestinians and Syrians.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Departure: Ehud Olmert said Wednesday that he would cede his party's leadership in September.
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Peace talks between Israelis and Arabs are on hold until further notice.

That's the conventional wisdom in the wake of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's announcement Wednesday that he'll resign: He's a lameduck leader with no leverage.

But Mr. Olmert is charging full-speed ahead, say analysts and aides, although his persistence in pursuing a peace deal with the Palestinians and the Syrians appears to be as an eleventh-hour attempt by the disgraced prime minister to recast his political legacy.

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Still, the question remains: Will his efforts be taken seriously in the Middle East, the United States, or in his own country?

"He wants to leave a legacy," says Yossi Alpher, coeditor of the Israeli-Palestinian Web journal Bitterlemons.org. "The ordinary profile of someone in his position is of a caretaker. But he might behave differently. He might feel more liberated."

Olmert might also have considerably more time beyond his party's September leadership contest, the date he set for his resignation. At that point, he'll become the head of a transition government, retaining all the powers of prime minister theoretically for months afterward – but only if a Kadima Party successor fails in winning a vote of confidence in parliament and is forced to a general election.

An unnamed official close to Olmert told Reuters on Thursday that the prime minister plans to pursue an agreement with the Palestinians before he leaves office – and he said as much in his resignation speech.

"We are closer than ever to understandings that are liable to be the basis for agreements on two tracks of rapprochement – the Palestinian and the Syrian," Olmert said. "As long as I serve in my position, I will not rest from the attempt to bring the negotiations between us and our neighbors to a successful conclusion."

Officially, the Palestinian Authority has stuck to its traditional position of resisting the temptation to actively jump into Israel's volatile political fray.

Negotiator Saeb Erekat called Olmert's announcement part of domestic Israeli affairs that would not affect the peace talks. "It's none of our business," he told the Associated Press.

On the one hand, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas has staked his entire presidency on the US-mediated negotiations with Israel. If Olmert chooses to pursue an agreement while he is still in office, Mr. Abbas has few alternatives. Abandoning the talks would give the rival Hamas party, which controls the Gaza Strip, a moral victory.

"He doesn't have a choice, because he's between a rock and a hard place," says Munther Dajani, a professor of political science at Al Quds University. "The only other card he has to play is to go home and dismantle the Palestinian Authority."

At the same time, Abbas may be reluctant to make politically risky compromises in peace talks with an outgoing Israeli prime minister who's mandate to negotiate is already being challenged, analysts said.

Israel and Syria are scheduled to hold a new round of indirect talks in Turkey in August, but most observers doubt that Damascus will take Olmert seriously as a negotiating partner.

The remote chances for a breakthrough before his announcement Wednesday have all but been eliminated.

"Nothing much substantive will happen," says Steven Cook, a Middle East expert at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. "It will be essentially treading water while they wait to see who will be the next prime minister of Israel."

More broadly in the region, there's a cynicism among Israel's neighbors that no matter who is the next prime minister, Israel's fractious parliament will prevent them from taking the political risks for peace, Mr. Cook says.

"There's a view that it actually doesn't matter who is going to be Israeli prime minister," he says. "From the Arab perspective there's a certain frustration with political instability in Israel and that political instability makes it difficult for Israelis to have a coherent approach."

Israel has held four elections in the last decade because successive prime ministers have failed to hold together their governing coalitions.

The conventional wisdom among Israeli commentators in the wake of Olmert's announcement is that the leading candidates to succeed him, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz, will be hard pressed to satisfy enough political parties to win a vote of confidence in the parliament. That is likely to trigger a fifth election.

Peace process proponents note that Olmert will retain the legal authority to set Israeli security and diplomatic policy as the head of a transitional government. If he is able to reach a deal with the Palestinians or the Syrians, it will still be subject to the approval of the parliament and possibly even a referendum.

Avshalom Vilan, a lawmaker from the dovish Meretz Party, said that while he believes that the Israeli public would accept a breakthrough deal with an Arab peace partner, he thinks its an unlikely possibility.

Even though Olmert was lauded for resigning on his own, his weak public credibility is likely to limit support for future negotiations.

"This is unbelievable chutzpah," says Yuval Steinitz, a lawmaker from the opposition Likud party about Olmert's plans to continue talks. "He has announced he will resign, and then will finalize [a treaty] that will restrict future governments. We see it as part of his moral deficiency."

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