Change and no change

The announcement by Ehud Olmert that he will step down once a successor in his party has managed to form a government coalition may have been dramatic, but it will have little effect on a peace process that has not been moving forward in any case.

It will, however, have an effect on the internal political balance of power in Palestine. That balance of power, between Fateh and Hamas, has been very sensitive to Israel’s political behavior since the reactivation of American diplomacy that started at the Annapolis conference last November.

There are essentially two schools of thoughts within the Palestinian political arena with respect to the peace process. One has set great store and invested a lot of time and political capital in the Annapolis process that has seen ongoing negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. This school includes Mahmoud Abbas, Ahmed Qurei, a previous prime minister, and the PLO’s negotiating department.

Very little has been leaked about the progress (or lack of) in negotiations and a very limited number of individuals are deciding the negotiating positions and tactics. But the eventual absence of Olmert, who has been the main advocate of these negotiations on the Israeli side, and the resulting complications for the Israeli government that might lead to early elections, will certainly weaken the position of this first camp in the Palestinian arena.

That will play into the hands of the second school of thought, which has been warning that hopes for negotiations with Israel under the sponsorship of the US are forlorn. Here, Israeli actions on the ground are continuing to feed the trend of radicalization on the Palestinian side and are strengthening the Hamas-led camp that has been predicting the failure of negotiations since the Annapolis process began. By way of an alternative, Hamas has argued that Israel only deals seriously with those that have proven themselves capable of exerting significant military pressure on the country.

To prove its point, Hamas need only point out how Israel has not listened to any requests by the Palestinian Authority to release prisoners or end those practices that serve to consolidate the occupation, most obviously settlement building. At the same time, Israel has given concessions to the parties that have engaged Israel militarily and maintain hardline positions.

Thus Hamas secured a ceasefire agreement with Israel in Gaza and is in indirect negotiations with Israel to open the Gaza crossing to Egypt. Meanwhile, Israel and Hizballah agreed to a prisoner exchange, while Syria and Israel have entered into indirect negotiations without Syria having to give up its alliance with Iran, a previous Israeli condition.

When Kadima members elect a leader on September 17 they may be choosing the next Israeli prime minister. As things stand now, the frontrunner is Tzipi Livni, the foreign minister, who has been leading the negotiations with the Palestinian side. Whether Livni can maintain a ruling coalition is not clear and early elections may well be called.

ButV none of these scenarios will have much effect on the ongoing negotiations, simply because the main Israeli motive for these talks has little to do with a peace agreement and everything to do with domestic Israeli politics.

Both Olmert and Livni have been using the negotiations first and foremost to gain domestic strength by imparting the impression that they’re working on a peace deal that they need time to complete. Creating an image of working for peace also goes down well with the international community, whose position in turn has a strong effect on the Israeli electorate.

In other words, public relations are the main motive driving the current Israeli leadership’s interest in the ongoing process, which will continue in spite of the possible absence of Olmert. At the same time, it will continue to fail to produce results.