Mideast fighting casts pall over Bush-Olmert meeting

washington | There’s little chance that a White House lawn moment next week will revive the sagging political fortunes of Israel’s prime minister.

For that to happen, Ehud Olmert would have had to reach some compromise with the Palestinians or progressed further in his attempted outreach to Syria.

But Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas abruptly canceled his meeting with Olmert last week. And the Syrians have yet to give an affirmative response to Olmert’s offer of the Golan Heights in exchange for an end to backing for terrorist groups.

Meanwhile, the Gaza Strip is descending into civil war and Abbas apparently is incapable of protecting his own forces against more powerful Hamas forces.

The Bush administration has made it clear that it won’t succeed in isolating Iran unless Israel makes some progress on the Palestinian front.

But clearly Olmert is expected to come to Washington for his June 19 meeting with President Bush without much to announce.

“What we need immediately in Gaza is to stop the fighting,” Riyad Mansour, the Palestinian envoy to the United Nations said Monday, June 9, at a Washington panel sponsored by the American Task Force on Palestine. “President Abbas is trying to revive the cease-fire,” referring to the cease-fire between Hamas forces and Fatah fighters loyal to Abbas, as well as to the on-again, off-again Hamas-Israel cease-fire.

Mansour said an Israeli agreement to extend the terms of the cease-fire to the West Bank, where it maintains security control, could bolster Abbas and better position him for resumed talks with Olmert. Terms of the expanded cease-fire would include an end to arrests and targeted killings.

Hamas now justifies rocket fire on Israel by saying, “They kill us in Nablus, they kill us in Jenin,” Mansour said. “To have quiet on both fronts would help develop a political front.”

Forces loyal to Abbas are still in control at key crossings: Karni into Israel and Rafah into Egypt. But little movement can be expected until Hamas puts down its weapons in Gaza.

Olmert’s outreach to Syrians doesn’t appear to be going anywhere, either.

Israel spoke to Bush for an hour last month for permission to reach out to Syria, which is reviled by the Bush administration for its efforts to crush Lebanon’s democracy and its facilitation of the insurgency in Iraq.

Bush gave the green light, and the Syrians finally responded Tuesday, June 10, when Deputy Foreign Minister Ahmed Arnous said his country “is prepared to resume talks, without any conditions, according to the land-for-peace principle and to achieve stability and security in the region.”

Arnous appeared to be ruling out Israel’s demand that Damascus show its willingness to shun Lebanese Hezbollah and Palestinian terrorist groups and loosen its ties to Iran. But Arnous did not indicate whether Syria would abandon its own precondition for a complete return of the Golan Heights, which has been annexed by Israel.

“President Bashar Assad has been clear about Syria’s willingness to resume negotiations according to the Madrid principles and international resolutions,” Arnous said, referring to the 1991 conference that attempted to jump-start peace negotiations between Israel and its neighbors.

So what does all this mean to Olmert if he returns home with little accomplished in Washington?

Raphael Israeli, a Hebrew University professor of Middle Eastern said, “Bush is hoping, especially in view of his failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, for something on the Palestinian front. Olmert is in peril in view of the hanging verdict of the Winograd commission,” the inquiry into last summer’s Lebanon war that has already condemned the government’s handling of the war and is to deliver its final report by the end of the summer.

But Nabil Fahmy, the Egyptian ambassador to Washington, said such weakness creates opportunities. Weak leaders are likelier to take risks, the Egyptian envoy said, noting that the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat reached out to the Americans and then Israel partly because the shadow of his predecessor, Gamal Abdel Nasser, loomed so large.

Peace initiatives in the region have “never been from a point of strength,” Fahmy added.

He said the sides should seize the initiative of the renewed Saudi effort to push the 2002 Arab League plan, which envisions a return to the 1967 borders in exchange for comprehensive Arab peace.

“If we don’t initiate this process by the end of summer, I’m not sure we’ll have the political space among the parties,” Fahmy said, alluding to the full-fledged launch in the fall of the U.S. presidential campaign.

Ron Kampeas

Ron Kampeas is the D.C. bureau chief at the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.