Talks' results will test leaders' rapport

The Baltimore Sun

JERUSALEM -- Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas have spent more time alone together than any previous pair of Israeli and Palestinian leaders. They have sat for hours, in 12 meetings over the past 11 months, sharing pictures of their grandchildren and talking about a world in which those kids can grow up in peace.

Smoke fills Olmert's study as Abbas, puffing on Marlboro Reds, describes the crushing burden of Israeli occupation in the West Bank. The Israeli prime minister lights up a cigar, lecturing his guest on the need to stop Palestinian militias from plotting against his people.

Aides say these one-on-one conversations, conducted in English, have grown more relaxed as the two men ease into a back-slapping familiarity -- a relationship warmer than any Israeli leader had with Yasser Arafat, Abbas' late predecessor as Palestinian Authority president.

Quality time together

If making peace were up to Olmert and Abbas alone, their compatriots might not be so skeptical that all this quality time together will pay off. The two men have a rough understanding of how to reach the goal of an independent Palestinian state, their aides say, but have been reluctant to write it down or say it publicly, given the explosive political risks of the trade-offs required.

Their rapport and their leadership will be tested severely in the coming months, if an international conference called by President Bush tomorrow in Annapolis blesses the nascent peace effort and launches it in earnest.

Both camps have hardened their positions since President Bill Clinton oversaw the previous major effort, with Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, at Camp David in 2000.

The collapse of those talks set off a Palestinian uprising. Israel seized more West Bank land for Jewish settlements and began walling itself off from the rest of the territory.

Olmert and Abbas say they are ready to tackle the conflict's long-standing issues: the borders of a Palestinian state, the status of Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees who fled when Israel was created in 1948.

A common fear

The stakes for both are extensive. Lacking the commanding authority of their immediate predecessors, each must calculate the wrath of hawkish rivals at home and the risk of losing office or even their lives.

The two men are bound by a common fear of Hamas, the rising influence of its benefactors in Iran and the spread of radical Islam. They share a belief that time is running out for a negotiated territorial compromise between Israelis and Palestinians over the same sliver of Earth.

'An opportunity'

Before leaving Saturday for Annapolis, Olmert said this might be Israel's last chance to strike a bargain that would guarantee its survival as a state with a Jewish majority. Without a deal, Abbas could yield to the radical Palestinian vision of a single state between Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea dominated by a Arab majority.

"We have a partner, and we are not willing to postpone negotiations to a later date, at which our partner might not be capable of fulfilling the mission," Olmert said. "This is an opportunity. It should be taken."

For the first time since 1993, at the dawn of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, "The peace process is being taken up by two leaders who seem to believe that the other side is serious about creating peace," wrote analyst David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

He added: "It is precisely this underlying respect between Olmert and Abbas, alongside the fear of a Hamas-led alternative government, that seems to give hope."

Abbas, 72, is a staid but personable functionary who plodded up the Palestinian Authority ranks. He has been a top negotiator since Arafat effectively recognized Israel in 1988 and began seeking a Palestinian state for the West Bank and Gaza.

In the three years since Arafat's death, Abbas has proved ineffective at governance. Hamas ended his secular Fatah faction's parliamentary majority in elections last year, then drove Fatah authorities from Gaza in an armed rout in June of this year.

Negotiating partners

Abbas' sole strategy for throwing off Israeli occupation is to insist unceasingly on the game he knows best: negotiations.

His newfound negotiating partner is 10 years his junior and new to the game. An affable lawyer and former businessman, Olmert entered national politics four years ago and moved up from deputy prime minister after his boss, Ariel Sharon, fell into a coma in January 2006.

Olmert has learned quickly, gaining a reputation as a shrewd politician. But he governs from the shaky middle ground of a broad coalition. Having defected from the right-wing Likud party behind Sharon to found Kadima, he faces a threat by many of that centrist party's members to return to Likud if he offers concessions to the Palestinians.

Strains are inevitable. By taking up Abbas' challenge to negotiate, Olmert has committed himself to a diplomatic venture that will define the rest of his tenure. It will demand the kind of delicate compromises that have broken up previous Israeli governing coalitions, toppled their leaders and provoked the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

The outcome rides heavily on what Bush does because of the brokering role the United States plays in Middle East peace talks. Bush is scheduled to meet separately with Olmert and Abbas at the White House today and again Wednesday.

To many observers in the Middle East, the administration's belated peace initiative looks haphazard, ill conceived and likely to fail. Yet the Annapolis conference has alarmed and mobilized Olmert's and Abbas' hawkish domestic critics, who fear its success.

Olmert has been accused of using peace talks to try to stave off official inquiries into four corruption allegations against him and his conduct of Israel's deadlocked war last year against Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon.

Rapport an advantage

Two right-wing parties, Israel is Our Home and Shas, have threatened to quit his government if peace talks advance.

The risks for Abbas at home are somewhat different. His Fatah movement is dissatisfied with the peace effort so far but is unlikely to force him from office. Instead, it could press him to resume a power-sharing alliance with Hamas, a move that almost surely would end U.S. and Israeli support for further talks.

And Hamas could sabotage peace negotiations with a single suicide bombing inside Israel or a deadly attack on Fatah targets in the West Bank. The Islamic movement mustered 10,000 demonstrators in Gaza recently to brand Abbas a collaborator with the Jews and warn of violence if he concedes anything to Olmert.

Whatever understandings the two men have reached in the smoke of their private conversations have yet to filter down. Their negotiating teams, working in a less trustful climate, have struggled for weeks to draft a statement of principles to guide the peace talks.

As the negotiations get under way, the rapport between Olmert and Abbas should be helpful in breaking impasses, said Mark Regev, the Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman.

"It doesn't guarantee an agreement, but it improves the chances," he said.

Richard Boudreaux writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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