Commentary Magazine


Can Abbas Resurrect Olmert’s Career?

The mini-boomlet fueling the attempted comeback of former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert got a boost yesterday from an unlikely source: Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas. As Haaretz reported, Abbas claims that had Olmert remained in office only a couple of months longer, peace might have been possible. Abbas praised Olmert in a meeting with a group of Israeli politicians in his Ramallah headquarters. This says more about Abbas’s desire to avoid blame for his walking away from Olmert’s offer of an independent Palestinian state in exchange for peace than it does about the latter’s political future. But even though Abbas has zero credibility with the Israeli public, this is a message that is integral to Olmert’s far-fetched hopes to replace Benjamin Netanyahu.

The Olmert scenario, promoted by such otherwise savvy observers like the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, is based on the idea that the Israeli people can be made to forget just how rotten a prime minister Olmert was and how unpopular he became during his three years in office because he can persuade the Palestinians to make peace. If what’s left of his Kadima Party backs him along with other opposition centrists as well as the left-wing Labor Party, then it is theoretically possible that this coalition can hold its own against incumbent Prime Minister Netanyahu and his center-right and religious party allies. The problem with this scenario is not just that Olmert might not be eligible to run for the Knesset because of ongoing legal problems or even how utterly unlikely it is that such a coalition could be cobbled together. The real fallacy at the heart of the Olmert comeback is that the Israeli people are not so stupid as to forget what actually happened in 2008 no matter what Olmert and Abbas say.

It bears recalling that after the restart to the peace process provided by the Annapolis Conference in November 2007, Olmert pursued a peace deal with Abbas. The following year he made an offer to the Palestinians that exceeded even the generous terms put to Yasir Arafat by Ehud Barak at Camp David in 2000. The Palestinians were to be given an independent state in Gaza, almost all of the West Bank (with the parts retained by Israel to be offset by land swaps from pre-1967 Israel) as well as a large share of Jerusalem. As was the case in 2000 (and 2001 when Barak repeated his similar offer to Arafat at a conference at Taba), these were not terms that most Israelis supported, but Olmert felt he could have sold any deal to them were peace in the offing. He may not have been wrong about that, but he never got the chance to do so since Abbas fled from Olmert’s outstretched hand like a thief in the night.

It is true, as the Palestinians have insisted since then, that unlike Arafat Abbas did not formally turn down Olmert’s offer. Instead, he simply walked away from it and never responded. Like his terrorist predecessor, Abbas knew the Palestinian people would never accept a deal that recognized the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders would be drawn.

Olmert was driven from office by scandal that year and eventually replaced by Benjamin Netanyahu who was elected prime minister in February 2009. At that point, Abbas began to spin his decision to walk away from peace as a reaction to Olmert’s successor rather than the futility of the Israeli attempt to entice him to agree to end the conflict. As part of an effort to re-sell himself to an Israeli public that regarded him as responsible for the failure in the 2006 Lebanon War and much else, Olmert now seeks to burnish the myth that he was close to making peace, and perhaps he thinks Abbas can help.

But it won’t work. The vast majority of Israelis would happily embrace just about any peace deal, but have come to understand that Abbas has no interest in such an outcome. They have been suckered before and won’t fall for it again or at least not until the Palestinians change their political culture in order to make peace possible. If that happens, perhaps it will allow a Palestinian leader to emerge that will eclipse Abbas (who is currently serving the eighth year of his four-year presidential term) and his ilk.

As for Olmert, the Israeli justice system isn’t through adjudicating his scandals, and the courts may rule that even the slap on the wrist he got for one ethical conviction makes him ineligible for the Knesset election. Even if he can run, the rest of the opposition to Netanyahu knows that Olmert can’t come close to beating the prime minister and probably will prefer to run without him in order to prepare for a better result in the future. But whatever happens, nothing Mahmoud Abbas can say is going to persuade Israelis to drag Olmert out of the political dustbin.

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