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Critical Currents: Lame duck legacies

By Naomi Chazan, The Jerusalem Post, 02.09.08

Ehud Olmert's days in office are numbered. He is now engaged in a last-ditch effort to rescue his place in the country's annals by mitigating the inheritance of corruption, violence and despondency he leaves behind. He is fully aware that the key to his historical redemption lies in paving the way for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This is why the prime minister is devoting all his remaining energies to concluding an agreement on the principles of a permanent settlement with his counterpart, Mahmoud Abbas.
But if he really wants to leave a lasting imprint in this most important of tasks, he should direct as much, if not more, of his attention elsewhere - to creating the conditions that will make the implementation of any accord possible.
Olmert's last diplomatic surge consists of a series of proposals to contend with some of the knottiest items on the Israeli-Palestinian agenda. A Palestinian state, according to the scant reports that have reached the public, will be created in the bulk of the area occupied in 1967. Any adjustments made for the incorporation of settlements beyond the Green Line will be compensated by land swaps on a one-to-one basis. Some Palestinian refugees will be allowed to return to their homes in Israel on a humanitarian basis. There is nothing much new in these formulations, which follow the guidelines established in the Clinton proposals, the Taba talks and the Geneva initiative, except for their official affirmation.
THE SAME cannot be said for the ideas raised about the future of Jerusalem. Here Ehud Olmert has gone farther than his predecessors, suggesting that the creation of two capitals for two states in the city must be accompanied by international involvement in the governance of the Holy Basin, which incorporates the major Muslim, Jewish and Christian sites in the heart of the Old City. This proposal extends beyond the conventional toolbox developed in recent years: It offers a vision of a universally shared core city enveloped by the capitals of Israel and Palestine.
This 21st-century version of an internationalized Jerusalem first conceived in the 1947 partition plan may help to defuse the emotions that have prevented progress on this question. It may also be a harbinger of more innovative ideas on other outstanding issues, such as settlements and security, which are currently being ironed out.
Israeli reactions to these suggestions have focused less on their substance than on the prime minister's right to even raise them, given his terminal political status. Those arguing that he has no legitimacy to strike a deal, even if only in principle, miss the point. Olmert has more leeway now than any of his predecessors: His situation is not comparable to that of Ehud Barak on the eve of the 2001 special elections, when he dispatched negotiators to Taba to conclude a deal that might tip their outcome. Since the prime minister knows full well that he will not have to follow up on the results of any agreement, he can let himself take the kind of bold initiatives that other Israeli leaders have been afraid to contemplate. The expanded range of possible solutions he now offers sets a precedent which will then provide the starting point for future talks.
The operative question, therefore, is whether these proposals go far enough. It is not clear that the approach to the refugee problem also includes the assumption of at least some Israeli responsibility for its creation - an essential precondition for any understanding on this most sensitive of topics. There is tremendous ambiguity regarding the treatment of the settlements and the degree to which various possibilities for their evacuation and dismantlement are being explored. The extent of the commitment to the termination of the occupation in all its forms is yet to be determined. And the precise placement of such an Israeli-Palestinian agreement within the framework of the Arab peace initiative remains unknown.
WHAT IS readily apparent to all is that Olmert has neither the breathing space nor the authority to reach a full-scale agreement. However much substantive weight his suggestions might carry, they will result in naught as long as the climate for negotiations is not substantially improved. If the judgment of history is still on his mind, Olmert might do well to consider using his waning days in office to rectify some of the glaring asymmetries that have prevented any lasting agreement in the past.
As an avowedly lame duck prime minister, he still has the power to announce the necessity for a full freeze on construction in the settlements. Their continued expansion is the most immediate obstacle to any accord. He can also call for a halt to the completion of the separation wall - a concrete indication that the security barrier cannot serve as a lasting political boundary.
Olmert may yet have time to take some additional steps. By declaring his support for lifting the siege on Gaza, he can lay the groundwork not only for the alleviation of the ongoing humanitarian crisis, but also for the necessary linkage of the two parts of the future Palestinian state. Such a move, more than anything else, would seriously undermine the appeal of Hamas extremism and revive at least some confidence in the diplomatic process.
Above all, Olmert could do something about resurrecting the human foundations for peace which have been so systematically undermined in recent years. The relationship between Israelis and Palestinians is in a state of almost total disrepair. Fear has bred mutual acrimony and despondency. Separation has exacerbated animosities and increased anxieties. Most Israelis and Palestinians may want an end to the conflict, but don't believe it can happen. Except on the official level, there are virtually no possibilities for any contact, let alone interchange.
Encouraging connections among people and facilitating movement both within the Palestinian territories and between Israelis and Palestinians can go a long way toward restoring some hope that an agreement is possible.
Ehud Olmert might yet leave a positive mark. But if he wants to do so, he should concentrate less on achieving agreement on substance and more on leveling the playing fields, so that any future talks would not be stymied once again by the impossible constraints imposed by the asymmetries of power and control.
If he succeeds, he would indeed leave a lasting legacy.