Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice met separately with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas Thursday in hopes of rekindling the Israeli-Palestinian peace process (Haaretz). Her visit came on the heels of a headline-grabbing speech by Olmert in which he extended Palestinian political leaders an olive branch. Olmert offered to release hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, unfreeze desperately needed Palestinian funds, and hold “a real, open, genuine and serious dialogue” with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas about the evacuation of West Bank settlements and the creation of a Palestinian state. In exchange, Israel’s leader asked that the Palestinian government recognize Israel, renounce violence, secure the release of a captive Israeli soldier, and relinquish their “right of return” (Globalpolicy.org). Though none of the proposed incentives are new, they have been repackaged, and the new appeal met with cautious optimism (LAT) in some circles. In an interview with CFR.org’s Bernard Gwertzman, Mideast expert Henry Siegman praises Olmert’s “surprisingly radical change in tone,” but cautions that the Israeli prime minister stopped short of saying the “magic words”: a willingness “to accept the pre-1967 lines as the starting point of the negotiations.”
Others, however, likened the proposal to old wine in a new bottle (JPost), pointing out that Olmert’s plan is contingent on some rather unlikely moves on the part of the Palestinians. Both the Hamas-led Palestinian government and the coalition ruling Israel have been in disarray for months. Israeli public opinion soured after the summer’s inconclusive war in Lebanon, and since the abduction of an Israeli soldier in June, the steady rhythm of Israeli raids and air strikes in Gaza neither secured the captive’s release nor stemmed the volleys of rockets fired into Israel. Hamas has paid a price, of course, both in blood and through the isolation of a months-long embargo which has caused great hardship. It is in these dire straits that the Economist perceives “the faintest glimmer of hope that something substantial is being attempted.”
In an effort to end a political stalemate that has hamstrung the Palestinian government, Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh offered to step down in mid-November in order to make way for a unity government of technocrats with which Israel and the international community would negotiate. Israel expert David Makovsky told Gwertzman that the announcement was “good news,” but Palestinian negotiations have been painstaking, and Abbas said Tuesday they had reached a “dead end” (Reuters).
Underscoring Rice’s visit is intense political pressure on both Olmert and Abbas to score a political win, but each man’s star has fallen so much that the New York Times suggests any agreement they reach would be a “peace of the weak.” Olmert’s speech effectively puts the onus on the Palestinians, whose initial response has been mixed. Though Abbas had a positive reaction (AP), Hamas called the speech a “conspiracy” and many Palestinians took particular exception (JPost) to Olmert’s call for them to abandon their right of return. Reactions in the Israeli press were equally mixed (BBC), though Haaretz suggests Olmert’s new approach reflects “the desires of a salient and consistent majority of both nations.”
Olmert’s overture came just one day after the start of a tenuous cease-fire agreement in Gaza. Hours before Olmert spoke, a pair of Qassam rockets fired from Gaza landed harmlessly in an Israeli border town. The Palestinian group Islamic Jihad pledged to fire more rockets unless Israel extends the ceasefire to include the West Bank (al-Jazeera), something it is not willing to do. Should the cease-fire break, experts say it could dash any renewed hopes for peace.