Not much benefit for Abbas

The latest display of successful political manipulation by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has given his government a temporary reprieve. He will remain prime minister for at least three months and perhaps beyond.

And he is likely to continue to pursue the ambitious peacemaking and conflict-mitigation activity that he has displayed on virtually all fronts in recent weeks and months since it serves all his presumed aims: political survival, expanding the circle of peace and even neutralizing potential accomplices to an Iranian reprisal in the event Iran’s nuclear installations are attacked.

Olmert’s government is weak and riven by dissent and rivalry. Not all his initiatives with Israel’s neighbors make sense at the strategic level. Yet he persists, seemingly convinced that in his dismal political situation and with his public approval ratings scraping the floor, he has nothing to lose and everything to gain.

In what directions might he now embark? And how would they affect the fortunes of the most veteran and core peace process, that with the Ramallah-based PLO?

Badly, for the most part. Beginning closest to home, all of the Olmert government’s dealings with the Hamas regime in Gaza have the negative effect of weakening President Mahmoud Abbas and his government. The Gaza ceasefire is seen by Palestinians as an achievement by Hamas and its arms and is contrasted to the apparent lack of real progress in the Abbas-Olmert negotiations over a peace framework. By the same token, a prisoner exchange with Hamas that involves the release of large numbers of hard-core Palestinian terrorists from Israeli jails will further weaken Abbas’ image as a leader who can deliver. Indeed, even the inclusion of a handful of Palestinians among those released by Israel in its deal with Hizballah will hurt Abbas.

Note that the moderate Palestinian president’s peace and security efforts, however weak and problematic, have almost never been rewarded by Olmert’s releasing Palestinian prisoners. If Olmert wants his Palestinian peace track to succeed, he must deliver tangible concessions to Abbas himself. Yet it is precisely here that the Israeli prime minister appears to be powerless. With all his skills as a political manipulator, he seemingly cannot begin to remove outposts and stop settlement sprawl without losing his coalition. Nor is he or any other mainstream Israeli politician inclined to offer concessions regarding the refugee/right of return issue or the holy basin issues in Jerusalem–concessions that could compromise Israel’s status as a Jewish and democratic state–just to make Abbas a hero to his fellow Palestinians.

In contrast, any sort of progress registered in the indirect Syria-Israel peace talks could serve Abbas’ overall objectives, to the extent that it presages the weakening of Hamas by its leadership’s eventual expulsion from Damascus. When Abbas gave the Israel- Syria talks his blessing, he evidently recognized that ultimately their success would serve his cause.

But we are a long way from achieving this goal. Meanwhile, Olmert’s adventures in peacemaking and conflict resolution, especially the ceasefire with Hamas, have persuaded Abbas that his and Fateh’s political survival require him to seek renewed negotiations with Hamas regarding a Palestinian unity government.

This Palestinian move, like Israel’s ceasefire negotiations with Hamas and its indirect talks with Syria, points to a significant regional development: the waning of the Bush administration’s influence. President George W. Bush’s increasingly obvious lame-duck status, following upon a two-term record of consistent failure in the region, enables actors like Olmert and Abbas, despite or perhaps because of their political weakness, to begin to ignore American policy demands and strike out on their own by talking to regional actors that are boycotted or ignored by Washington.

We recall that it was precisely clandestine Israel-Arab talks behind Washington’s back that produced the most dramatic peace breakthroughs: Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem, the Oslo accord and Israel-Jordan peace. But the Israeli and Arab leaders involved in those achievements were strong and coherent strategic thinkers. That is not the case here. Indeed, in the present instance the issue at stake is far more likely to be Olmert and Abbas’ political survival than a bold new peace departure.