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In Wake of Olmert's Resignation, Arab World Wonders What's Next
The Washington Diplomat / September 2008

By Larry Luxner

Scandal-ridden Ehud Olmert will likely go down as one of the most unpopular prime ministers in Israeli history. There doesn’t seem to be much love lost in the Arab world as well.

“Olmert stalled the peace process entirely, so there is nothing to be sorry about,” said Nabil Abuznaid, head of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Mission in Washington. “In all these years of negotiation, nothing has been achieved. New settlements were built after the Annapolis conference, and not one checkpoint in the West Bank has been removed. So for us, this is no loss at all.”

In late July, Olmert announced he would quit as soon as his centrist Kadima Party elects a new leader — either Sept. 17, when the primary is held, or a week later, when a runoff, if necessary, takes place.

The 63-year-old politician first rose to prominence as mayor of Jerusalem in 1993 and became Israel’s leader in early 2006 following Ariel Sharon’s debilitating stroke. Yet he had been dogged by accusations of corruption for nearly two decades. Olmert’s popularity took a nosedive after a disastrous 34-day war against Hezbollah in Lebanon two years ago that resulted in the deaths of 163 Israelis and more than 1,200 Lebanese.

In April 2007, Israel’s Winograd Commission found Olmert ultimately responsible for the military failures of the Lebanon war, and in May he became the focus of a police investigation for illegal fundraising, possible bribery and double-billing overseas trips while still mayor of Jerusalem and minister of trade and industry under Sharon.

Among the charges, Olmert is accused of accepting $150,000 in cash-filled envelopes from New York businessman Morris Talansky over a 14-year period. Talansky claims the money was used to finance, among other things, a lavish Italian vacation and a $4,700 three-night stay at Washington’s Ritz-Carlton Hotel. The prime minister vows he’ll prove his innocence after stepping down in September.

Still, some in the Arab world have expressed surprise that Olmert would step down at all over the charges, especially at such a critical time.

“Finally, Olmert has decided to yield to political and judicial pressure and withdraw from political life,” said the London-based newspaper Al-Quds Al-Arabi in a recent editorial. “What was not expected was that he would surrender so easily at a time when Israel is facing difficult political and military times, especially with the possibility of a war with Iran.”

On the Internet, Arab bloggers wasted no time reacting to Olmert’s announcement, with some offering grudging praise for a country they’d grown up despising. One man writing under the handle Syrian Voice had this to say: “Despite my strong hatred for the Zionist regime, I have a lot of admiration and respect for this entity because there, no one is above the law. In the Arab world, laws are broken every day and no one seems to care.”

A similar comment came from a Jordanian national named Ahmed: “Only a few thousand dollars? This is what an Egyptian minister gets in a day or what a Saudi CEO gets in 45 minutes, or a Kuwaiti government official in five minutes.”

To that end, Shibley Telhami, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a political science professor at the University of Maryland, said many Arabs are convinced Olmert’s downfall was orchestrated by right-wing Israelis in order to install Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister and stop the peace process dead in its tracks.

“Most of the Arab leaders who support an agreement with Israel, including Syria, banked on that process and don’t like change when that process is in place,” said Telhami, an expert on Middle East politics. “They hoped an agreement between Olmert and Abu Mazen [nickname for Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority] would be reached. Many assumed there would be a deal by July.”

Telhami continued: “All Arabs have a very bitter taste from the years when Netanyahu was prime minister. They’re not comfortable with [Ehud] Barak either, because although they prefer him over Netanyahu in the Arab world, many also think Barak was part of the reason Camp David failed.”

Netanyahu and Barak, both former prime ministers, would be contenders in a prime minister race if the Kadima Party winner fails to assemble a coalition government after choosing a leader to replace Olmert in September. If the coalition doesn’t get at least 61 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, new elections for the Knesset and for prime minister would have to take place, bringing Netanyahu and Barak into the picture, along with Kadima’s top candidates.

The two leading contenders to win the Kadima primary are Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz. (Others in the running include Public Security Minister Avi Dichter and Interior Minister Meir Sheetreit.)

“Livni, the Olmert administration’s lead negotiator with the Palestinian Authority, is widely perceived as free of the corruption problems that have plagued other members of Olmert’s cabinet. But her limited national security experience at a time when Israel faces the crucial question of whether or not to launch a pre-emptive strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities is seen as a significant weakness,” said Uri Heilman, a political reporter for the New York-based Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Livni is widely viewed as a pragmatic dove, much like Barak — head of Israel’s Labor Party — but Barak could trigger new general elections by pulling Labor out of the coalition that now governs the Jewish state. If that coalition falls apart, Labor would lose Knesset seats to the right-wing Likud Party, whose hawkish leader, Netanyahu, is widely favored to win a general election.

And that could spell disaster for regional peacemaking efforts, warns Marwan Muasher, a former Jordanian ambassador to the United States and his country’s first-ever ambassador to Israel.

“I found Netanyahu to be arrogant and a liar, and many people would agree with me,” he told The Washington Diplomat. “I think there’s a very good chance he will come to power. But I don’t think we should keep the peace process hostage to changes in personalities, on either side. The time to cut a deal is now. What’s needed is political will led by the United States to make it happen.”

Palestinian Representative Abuznaid — who took over the Washington PLO Mission in May from Afif Safieh — was less judgmental of the hawkish former prime minister.

“We had bad and good experiences with Netanyahu. He accepted that Israelis should leave Hebron, but this was in the 1990s, and now we’re in 2008 so let’s see what he’s going to bring to the table,” Abuznaid said, adding that “if in the end we agree to leave the [Jewish] settlements alone, those people will have to live under Palestinian law. They’ll have to accept our state and be part of it. We will not allow any Israeli military presence to protect these settlements.”

But Abuznaid declined to offer his thoughts on Livni, Barak or any of the other contenders for Israel’s top job. “This is an Israeli decision, and hopefully this will be a choice for peace, not a choice for war. So we’ll have to wait and see,” he said. “We would like someone who can move the peace process forward, someone who will stop the confiscation of land, and someone who will improve the lives of the Palestinian people.”

Likewise, Ahmed Salkini, spokesman at the Syrian Embassy in Washington, said Olmert’s resignation is purely a domestic Israeli issue. “However, in Syria, we can only hope that whatever progress we have made in the indirect peace talks mediated by Turkey are not negated or reversed by the political changes within Israel,” Salkini told The Diplomat. “There can be no doubt in anyone’s mind that peace should be the only path forward in our region, and we hope that any future Israeli prime minister understands this reality. Syria will continue to hold peace as its strategic option and priority. We look forward to a viable peace partner in Israel.”

It’s equally unclear how internal Israeli developments will affect the country’s relations with Lebanon. On Aug. 19, Olmert vowed that Israeli forces would attack its northern neighbor without restraint if a Hezbollah-dominated Lebanon struck Israel again, as it did in 2006.

“Israel did not use all means to respond then, but if Lebanon becomes a Hezbollah state, then we won’t have any restrictions in this regard,” he warned.

Olmert though has taken a somewhat softer stance toward the Palestinians lately, offering a land-swap deal early last month in what some Israeli observers called an attempt to divert attention away from his legal headaches. Olmert proposed that the Jewish state would annex 7.3 percent of the West Bank and retain control of the largest settlements. In return, the Palestinians would be given land in the Negev Desert equivalent to 5.5 percent of the West Bank, as well as free passage between the West Bank and Gaza Strip without any security checkpoints.

Abuznaid, speaking by phone from Amman, Jordan, ridiculed the offer. “This was a statement for local consumption,” he told The Diplomat. “What he’s talking about excludes Jerusalem, and he’s not considering Jewish settlements to be part of the West Bank. He cannot pick and choose.”

Hamas, which controls Gaza and is practically at war with the ruling Fatah party of Abbas, doesn’t think much of the proposal either. “Linking this offer with retrieving Gaza also means additional security obligations and commitment on the part of the Palestinian Authority,” Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri told reporters in Gaza, suggesting that the latest Israeli proposal is only intended to keep Fatah and Hamas engaged in perpetual warfare.

Similarly, Jordan’s Muasher called Olmert’s land-swap offer useless. “Olmert talks about giving back 92.7 percent of the West Bank without Jerusalem, and proposes another 5.5 percent of Negev Desert land near Gaza. But any deal without East Jerusalem is a non-starter for Arabs,” he said. “Every Israeli leader knows this, and probably every Israeli citizen as well.”

In 1995, Muasher opened the Jordanian Embassy in Tel Aviv and remained in Israel for 10 months. From 1997 to 2002, he was Jordan’s ambassador to the United States and eventually became foreign minister. While in Israel, Muasher had no official dealings with Olmert because at the time, Olmert was mayor of Jerusalem, and the Jordanian government does not recognize Israeli jurisdiction over the eastern and western sectors of the holy city.

“I think Olmert came to realize, as did many Israeli leaders before him, that Israel would have to go for a two-state solution,” said Muasher. “The problem is that he’s still trying to come up with a two-state solution that does not result in a viable Palestinian state. Israel cannot put on the table proposals that serve only its own needs and ignore those of the Palestinians.”

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