If Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is about to be ousted in a corruption scandal, so is President Bush’s effort to broker a Mideast peace deal by the time he leaves office.
Time and patience were running short for U.S.-backed peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians before Olmert’s simmering political troubles boiled over this week. If Olmert is forced out, there will be little time and perhaps even less appetite among all sides to start over.
Israel’s powerful defense minister, Ehud Barak, who is presumed to want Olmert’s job, said Wednesday the prime minister should step aside because of his political or legal distractions. Barak threatened to bring down the government if Olmert doesn’t comply.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice refused to comment Wednesday on the unfolding political drama, and the State Department put on a game face.
“We firmly believe and are fully committed to helping the Israelis and Palestinians achieve a peace agreement by the end of the year,” State Department spokesman Tom Casey said. “We have committed to supporting their efforts. They have committed to reaching that agreement. That is where we were yesterday, that’s where we were today, and I expect that’s where we’ll be tomorrow.”
Students of previous, failed negotiations said Olmert’s precarious position could let the Bush administration off the hook if the current talks go nowhere.
“If Israeli politics are in meltdown, that’s certainly not the time to lock in an agreement that breaks new ground,” said Jonathan Alterman, Mideast scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Israeli prosecutors are looking into tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions that Olmert collected from American donors in the years before he became prime minister in 2006.
Pressure for Olmert to resign, or at least “go on vacation,” as Barak put it, grew louder after a key witness, U.S. businessman Morris Talansky, testified this week that he had given $150,000 to Olmert.
Talansky said the payments, often cash-stuffed envelopes, helped fund Olmert’s expensive lifestyle that included luxury hotels and first-class travel.
Olmert has denied any wrongdoing and promised to resign if indicted.
Olmert’s government was built on the premise that cutting a deal with the Palestinians is in Israel’s best long-term interest. If Barak carries out his threat, new elections could bring a government opposed to those high-level negotiations as well as new, low-level talks with Syria.
Even if there were a deep bench of peace-minded politicians behind him, Olmert’s personal relationship with his Palestinian counterpart and his direct involvement in talks would be difficult to replicate quickly.
Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas meet regularly, shake hands warmly and act as billboard advertising for closed-door talks that both men say are confronting the toughest issues in the six-decade Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. negotiator and author of a recent history of U.S. peace efforts, “The Much Too Promised Land,” likens the current talks to a car with three flat tires.
The Palestinian Authority is still a mess, Olmert’s in trouble and the U.S. doesn’t seem reconciled to the kind of arduous diplomacy and hard political choices that a successful U.S.-brokered settlement would require, Miller said.
“The fourth tire is the only one with any air, and that’s Abbas and Olmert. They like each other,” and seem to work well together, Miller said. “But the car can’t really go where it needs to go.”
Olmert and Abbas inaugurated the negotiations last fall, after seven years of violence, with the goal of sketching a separate Palestinian state before Bush’s term ends in January 2009. The talks have produced no clear public accomplishments.
Rice had been pushing both sides to demonstrate some progress, perhaps through the drawing of a new West Bank border, to give Israelis and Palestinians confidence that the talks are getting somewhere.
Rice was visibly rattled by questions about Olmert’s political future during a visit to Jerusalem this month, and his fortunes were a hot topic during her private meetings with both Israelis and Palestinians. As she often does, Rice also met with Barak on that trip.
Olmert, a master political survivor, has weathered repeated scandals throughout his three-decade political career. The new police investigation is the fifth opened into his affairs since he was elected, and he was widely seen to have botched Israel’s 2006 war in Lebanon.
He could hang on, but would probably be a diminished figure with less political capital to spend selling the unpopular concessions that would be required of Israel under a real land-for-peace settlement.
“Our goal here is not to achieve an agreement based on the personalities of President Abbas and Prime Minister Olmert,” Casey said. “Our goal here is to achieve an agreement that serves the interests of the Palestinian people and of the Israeli people.”
Anne Gearan covers diplomacy and foreign affairs for The Associated Press.