Analysis: Olmert tries to woo Palestinians

By JOSHUA BRILLIANT, UPI Correspondent  |  Nov. 28, 2006 at 4:04 PM
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TEL AVIV, Israel, Nov. 28 (UPI) -- On a recent Saturday night, some 100,000 Israelis gathered at the Tel Aviv square where Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was murdered 11 years ago.

It is an annual memorial in which singers are the main attraction, but this year writer David Grossman made the biggest impact.

"Israel raised a mighty military muscle (in the Lebanon war) ...but learnt that in the final analysis our military power alone cannot secure our existence," he noted.

Israel's leadership is "hollow," Grossman continued.

"When was the last time the prime minister initiated a move and did not just react, frantically, to moves others imposed upon him?

"Turn to the Palestinians, Mr. Olmert.... Address their deep wounds, recognize their continued suffering... It will only open hearts," he advised.

Olmert reacted on Monday.

Speaking at Sde Boker in the Negev desert, where Israel's first Prime Minister David Ben Gurion was buried, Olmert held up the prospect of a dialogue with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

If the Palestinians meet certain conditions, such as renouncing terror, recognizing Israel and past agreements with it, the dialogue could lead to the establishment of "an independent and viable Palestinian state, with territorial contiguity (in the West Bank) ...with full sovereignty and defined borders," Olmert said. Israel will agree to evacuate "many areas and settlements," he added.

It would release "numerous Palestinian prisoners -- including ones who were sentenced to lengthy prison terms." Palestinians' quality of life that "was severely affected as a result of our need to take defensive measures against your terrorist actions," will improve.

Olmert talked of reducing the number of roadblocks, easing movement through border crossings, and "releasing Palestinian funds for the purpose of alleviating the humanitarian hardship which many of you suffer."

Israel can help establish industrial zones so that Palestinians will no longer depend on Israel for a livelihood.

Much of this was said in the past but the packaging was inviting.

What sounded new was a favorable reference to the Saudi peace initiative that the Arab League adopted at its March 2002 summit meeting in Beirut.

"Some parts in the Saudi peace initiative are positive," Olmert declared.

That initiative seeks a full Israeli withdrawal "from all the territories" occupied during the 1967 war; a "Just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem to be agreed upon in accordance with U.N. resolution 194," and "acceptance of ... a sovereign independent Palestinian state...in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip with East Jerusalem as its capital."

When that happens, the Arab countries will consider the conflict with Israel "ended." They will have "a peace agreement with Israel" and establish "normal relations" with it, the document says.

The head of the Hebrew University's Dept. of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies, Prof. Elie Podeh, noted the initiative means that even the radical Arab states, such as Syria, would recognize Israel's existence and conclude a collective agreement with it.

The offer of "normal relations" with Israel falls short of "normalization" but is still, "not war," Podeh said at a debate Peace Now held in Jerusalem, Friday.

Egypt has peace and "normal relations" with Israel, but it is a cold peace with various groups opposed to it.

An Arab recognition that the conflict with Israel has "ended, is something Israel has all along aspired for," Podeh noted.

On the other hand, the Arab demand that Israel withdraw from all the areas it occupied in 1967 means Israel must pull out of East Jerusalem, the holy sites, and the northeastern shore of the Sea of Galilee. Syria will then have access - and claims - to the lake's water.

The reference to the refugee issue is also, "a bit tricky," because it refers to U.N. Resolution 194, Podeh noted. That resolution says that refugees seeking to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors "should be permitted to do so." Israel maintains that an Arab influx would doom the Jewish state.

However, Podeh noted, the peace initiative's wording was "deliberately vague and should be a basis for subsequent negotiations."

Jordan's ambassador Ali al-Ayed backed him. The document talks of "an agreed upon solution which means nothing can be forced upon Israel," al-Ayed said.

Podeh concluded the Arab initiative "definitely provides a basis for opening negotiations."

It could be "a good and correct opening" for moves involving Israel and moderate Arab states, he suggested. "Israel is in the same boat with several states...in the Arab world," he maintained.

The war underlined the emergence of two groups in the Middle East: One, which is radical, includes Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, and Hamas and seeks to change the regional status quo. The other, comprises moderate states such as Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, Turkey and North African states.

Iran's nuclear program "frightens everybody" in the region, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism troubles most Arab regimes, and the Israeli-Palestinian dispute affects the area, especially Egypt that borders Gaza, Podeh noted. These three issues could be grounds for Arab-Israeli cooperation, he suggested.

Olmert seemed to have such cooperation in mind. He said Israel would seek "backing for direct (Israeli-Palestinian) negotiations" from "Arab States which strive for a peaceful solution to the conflict." He mentioned Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States.

"I intend to invest efforts in order to advance the connection with those States and strengthen their support of direct bilateral negotiations between us and the Palestinians," he added.

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