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Analysis by Peter Hirschberg

Israel Suddenly Generous With Help for Abbas, Fatah

(IPS) JERUSALEM -- Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has issued a dire warning to his people. Failure to reach a negotiated two-state settlement with the Palestinians, he has declared, will mean the end of the State of Israel.

"If the day comes when the two-state solution collapses, and we face a South African-style struggle for equal voting rights (also for the Palestinians in the territories), then, as soon as that happens, the State of Israel is finished," Olmert told the daily Haaretz, a day after he and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas agreed at a summit in the U.S. to try and reach a peace agreement by the end of 2008.

The prime minister was referring to what Israelis call the "demographic threat." With Arab birth rates higher than those of Jews, if the two-state solution dies, then Jews will become a minority in the geographic space between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea -- an area that includes sovereign Israel, the West Bank and Gaza -- and Israel will have to defend itself against increasingly vociferous claims it is no longer a democracy.

Olmert has sounded similar views in the past, but never as prime minister. And with the comments coming in the immediate aftermath of the summit in Annapolis, Maryland, it raises the possibility that the Israeli leader is beginning to prepare public opinion for the concessions he will have to make to the Palestinians if a final status peace deal is to be hammered out. It was agreed at the summit that talks on the issues at the core of the conflict, like the future borders of a Palestinian state, arrangements for Jerusalem, and the fate of Palestinian refugees and of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, will begin in December.

It is encouraging that after seven years of bloodshed and a seemingly interminable impasse in peace talks, the two sides are about to reconvene around the negotiating table. But considering that three weakened leaders -- Olmert, Abbas and President Bush -- are the ones who will have to craft a deal, it is difficult to see how it can be accomplished before the U.S. president leaves office in a year.

Already Olmert is lowering expectations. "We will make an effort to hold speedy negotiations in the hope we may conclude by the end of 2008, but certainly there is no commitment for a firm timetable for their completion," Olmert said on Sunday.

Having returned from the dizzying heights of a summit attended not only by Abbas but also by many Arab leaders, Olmert will come face-to-face with the dilemma he confronts at home -- move forward on the peace front and risk having his ruling coalition unravel, or drag his feet in the talks and keep his government intact.

To propel the peace process forward, the Israeli leader will be required to make territorial and other concessions to the Palestinians that could leave him facing an early election. The right-wing parties in his government, who oppose far-reaching concessions to the Palestinians, have threatened to leave the coalition the moment these are made.

With Olmert's popularity ratings low, due largely to the sense within the Israeli public that he badly mismanaged the military campaign in Lebanon last year, it is hard to see how he could summon the political will to push through what would be an extremely complex peace arrangement. But some suggest that his very political weakness could be what pushes him toward sealing a deal with Abbas, as it would then provide him with a strong campaign message if he were forced to go to an election.

Abbas was reminded during the summit of the difficulties he will face in trying to forge a final status peace agreement, when a Palestinian man was shot dead by his security forces as they were trying to disperse an Islamist-led protest against the summit in the West Bank town of Hebron. With Hamas having seized control of the Gaza Strip in June and having vanquished Abbas' Fatah forces there, the Palestinian leader has been further weakened and many Israelis wonder whether he can implement a peace deal.

Bush promized at the close of the summit that the U.S. would be "actively engaged in the process." But the president's actions over the last seven years raise doubts about his willingness to fully back Mideast negotiations. He has adopted an arms-length approach, trying to manage the conflict without getting caught up in it. Why now, at the end of his term, ask the skeptics, would he suddenly begin actively dabbling in the elusive business of Mideast peacemaking?

And even if he is willing to suddenly throw the full weight of the presidency behind the negotiations, it may well be too late. With only a year left in office, it is doubtful that the president possesses the type of political capital that will be required to seal a peace deal in the Middle East in the space of just 12 months.

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Albion Monitor   December 3, 2007   (

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