Beirut - In his first policy statement, acting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert confirmed what the analysts have been saying since he assumed the helm of leadership on January 4: that Olmert is likely to be more amenable to negotiating a final peace settlement than was his predecessor, Ariel Sharon. On Tuesday, Olmert outlined his position on the issue in detail, saying that he hopes to start working with the Palestinians on a final peace deal after Israel's elections on March 28. Negotiations, he said, would take place under the framework of the internationally backed "road map" to peace.
Olmert took a calculated risk by making this stand public ahead of the elections. While the move could alienate those who favour a more hawkish security stance, recent shifts in Israeli public opinion suggest that it will win him the support of the vast majority of the electorate. Israelis, who have grown tired of decades of conflict, are ready for a moderate leadership that can carry Israel forward into final-status negotiations. This public sentiment is confirmed by the fact that despite the loss of Ariel Sharon at the helm of the Kadima, opinion polls consistently put Olmert and his centrist party well ahead of the contenders.
The shifting political landscape in Israel suggests that Palestinians could soon see a rare opening for peace. And they cannot afford to let this historic chance for a final settlement pass them by. To capitalize on this opportunity, the Palestinians would do well to recognize that their actions between now and March 28 will have a direct impact on Israeli public opinion and therefore on the outcome of the vote. A series of suicide bombings between now and then could quickly push Israeli public opinion back toward the right and see the return of the hard-line Likud Party. The Palestinians will also need to prepare themselves for the negotiations that potentially lie ahead. Now is the time to address the problems that have plagued the Palestinian Authority: corruption in government, an ineffective security apparatus and the chaos and instability in Gaza. The Palestinians can start to create an environment that will be conducive to future peace negotiations.
In giving his policy statement, Olmert has in essence issued a diplomatic challenge to the Palestinians, and they will need to rise to meet it. Olmert's move will be a big step for the Palestinians to match, but they cannot afford to fail to do so.
Source: The Daily Star, January 18, 2006.
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Distributed by the Common Ground News Service.
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