Israel’s new battle with Hamas in Gaza means that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will be remembered for fighting two bloody and wasteful mini-wars in less than three years in power. The first one, in Lebanon during the summer of 2006, punished but failed to defeat or even permanently injure Hezbollah, which is politically and militarily stronger today than it was before Olmert took office. This one will probably have about the same effect on Hamas, which almost certainly will still control Gaza, and retain the capacity to strike Israel, when Olmert leaves office in a few months.
The saddest aspect of all this is that Olmert, a former hard-line believer in a “greater Israel,” was more committed than any previous Israeli prime minister to ending the country’s conflicts with Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinians. Thrust into office in January 2006 by the incapacitation of Ariel Sharon, Olmert won his own mandate by promising to unilaterally withdraw Israeli soldiers and settlers from most of the West Bank. When that project was undermined by the Lebanese war, he launched into one-on-one negotiations with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in which he discussed terms for a two-state settlement going well beyond those previously offered by an Israeli government. He also initiated indirect talks with the Damascus regime of Bashar al-Assad over the objections of the Bush administration.
Olmert has the passion of a latter-day convert to the two-state solution. He is convinced that, unless Israel is able to separate itself from the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza in the relatively near future, it will be overwhelmed demographically and will have to give up either its democracy or its status as a Jewish state. As recently as his last visit to Washington in late November, he was still pushing — after virtually everyone else in Jerusalem and Washington had given up — for some kind of “framework agreement” with Abbas that would spell out the terms for a deal, and be ratified by the U.N. Security Council.
In the end, all Olmert got was U.N. Resolution 1850, passed Dec. 16, that endorsed a two-state solution without any specifics. Instead of a groundbreaking accord with Abbas or Assad, he will leave behind scorched earth in Gaza, a Lebanese front bristling with Hezbollah’s missiles and an Israeli West Bank presence that has expanded rather than contracted during the past two years, with thousands of new homes for Jewish settlers under construction. To top it off, Olmert may well go to prison on the corruption charges that have forced him from office.
His failure represents another missed opportunity for Middle East peace — and probably means that the incoming Obama administration, like the incoming Bush administration of 2001, will inherit both a new round of Israeli-Palestinian bloodshed and a new Israeli government indisposed to compromise. The front-runner for prime minister in the Israeli election scheduled for February is Binyamin Netanyahu, who aspires to indefinitely postpone Palestinian statehood — and to use military force against the Iranian nuclear program. If Netanyahu is elected, Barack Obama will be more likely to preside over a crisis in U.S.-Israeli relations than a Middle East peace.
Olmert badly miscalculated in launching the 2006 offensive against Hezbollah — and he’s probably making the same mistake in Gaza, which will cost many lives and subject Israel to another round of international opprobrium while distracting attention from the more serious threat of Iran. Despite his bold intentions, Olmert proved unwilling or unable to stand up to the Jewish settlement movement in the West Bank; his government failed to dismantle even those outposts it has repeatedly declared illegal.
But Olmert is not the only one to blame. President Bush hosted a Mideast peace meeting in Annapolis last year but never fully invested himself in Olmert’s attempt to negotiate with Abbas. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice traveled to the region 16 times in 21 months but proved feckless as a broker. Arab states proclaimed their commitment to peace with Israel as part of a two-state settlement but were unwilling to take any tangible action to make it happen.
Worst of all, Abbas followed in a long tradition of previous Palestinian leaders by reacting to a far-reaching Israeli offer with an uncourageous demurral. Olmert has never publicly disclosed the terms he discussed with Abbas, but sources say he went well beyond what Israel agreed to at the Camp David talks of 2000, previously the closest approach to a deal. I’m told Olmert offered to support the groundbreaking concession of allowing thousands of Palestinian refugees to “return” to Israel over a period of years; he also agreed to divide Jerusalem between Israel and Palestine. Abbas, like Yasser Arafat at Camp David, refused to sign on to a compromise that the world would have hailed.
So Olmert, like Ehud Barak eight years ago, will end his term as prime minister by bombing rather than liberating Palestinians. He will be remembered for his wars — but it may be many years before Israel again has a leader as willing to make peace.