Can Lame Ducks Forge a Middle East Peace?

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There appeared to be a veritable flock of lame ducks gathering in the Middle East last weekend, as Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair held talks with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and then with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Blair just officially inaugurated the twilight of his tenure, announcing that he will quit within the year amid mounting unpopularity, especially over his close ties with the Bush Administration. Olmert has been badly — critically, even — wounded by his inconclusive war in Lebanon, and his election promise of redrawing of Israel's borders by withdrawing from some West Bank settlements has been postponed for the foreseeable furture. Abbas, for his part, not only presides over a Palestinian government dominated by Hamas; his authority even over his own Fatah movement has frayed.

Still, following their talks with Blair, it was announced that Olmert and Abbas were willing to hold direct talks with one another. More significantly, perhaps, on Monday Abbas concluded an agreement with Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas, to form a government of national unity, on a political platform that includes the 2002 Beirut proposal of the Arab League — a document that offers Israel full peace with the Arab world in exchange for a withdrawal to its 1967 borders.

The idea of talks between Olmert and Abbas — backed, now, by a de facto gesture recognizing Israel, at least in its 1967 dimensions, by Hamas — may tempt observers to expect a long-awaited resumption of the peace process. But grounds for optimism are limited. From Blair to Haniyeh, all the politicians involved in the latest round of talking have domestic political reasons for signaling progress, but it's unlikely that any has the necessary combination of political will and authority to deliver.

  • Tony Blair, like his old friend President Bill Clinton, has indicated a desire to use the remainder of his tenure to pursue a Middle East peace agreement. But where Clinton at least brought to bear the power of the presidency of the United States, all Blair really has to offer is his ostensible influence with the President of the United States, on whose intervention any new peace agreement would depend. Blair, however, has had limited success in his efforts over the past five years to get the Bush Administration to apply itself to the priority of forging a peace agreement; his prospects of success will hardly have improved now that he has declared himself a lame duck.

  • Ehud Olmert may be in an even weaker position than his British counterpart. The prevailing view among Israelis that their government failed to achieve its objectives in the recent Lebanon war has left him fighting for his political life. Even the leaders of his own party have agreed that the unilateral withdrawals from the West Bank that had been a centerpiece of his campaign strategy are not politically feasible for the foreseeable future. Meeting with Abbas may be a way of signaling to Israelis that he is trying to forge ahead toward resolving the conflict, even though Corporal Gilad Shalit remains a captive of Hamas. But if pre-Lebanon Olmert held a view of Israel's final borders substantially short of what Abbas could accept, post-Lebanon Olmert may have even less to offer Abbas in exchange for a deal.

  • Mahmoud Abbas may finally have achieved an agreement to govern alongside Hamas, but the Palestinian Authority president has limited political authority even over his own Fatah movement. It's far from clear that the unity agreement will do much to arrest the deteriorating relations between Fatah and Hamas on the ground, and whether it can succeed in restoring the control of a single security force on the streets of Gaza, where competing militias now hold sway. Hamas will expect Abbas to deliver the release of some of its top political leaders recently detained by Israel as the price for any negotiations with Olmert, while Israel will demand security actions by the Palestinian Authority against the militants — which means Abbas may find himself serving simply as the interlocutor between Hamas and Olmert in the event of any talks, or promising things he's unable to deliver. Unable to secure Israeli movement toward a settlement based on the Arab League's Beirut principles, he may be hoping that Israel would at least release the hundreds of millions of dollars of PA revenue it is currently holding. But the Israeli leadership may be inclined to use the status of those funds as leverage over Hamas on security issues.

  • Ismail Haniyeh may be the elected prime minister, but he's only one voice in a complex Hamas leadership structure that combines a diversity of political instincts across its military and political wings, and across its geographic dispersion between Gaza, the West Bank, Israeli prisons and Syria. His priority in accepting a political deal that includes the Beirut principles is not to restart the peace process with Israel; it's to remove the obstacles to Western donor aid flowing to the Palestinian Authority so that the salaries can be paid and Hamas can get on with governing. Haniyeh will be quite happy to see negotiations between Abbas and Olmert go nowhere, as long as the good faith shown by the Palestinians is enough to reopen the funding spigot. But to do so, Olmert might require that the Palestinian Authority take some of the steps required by President Bush's "roadmap" in respect of closing down independent armed groups such as the military wing of Hamas, and it's not clear that Haniyeh has the inclination or the ability to deliver those.

    As if it wasn't hard enough to conceive of Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas having much to talk about given the gulf that divides them at present, there's an additional peril: The more radical elements of Hamas and Fatah have traditionally responded to any movement toward rapprochement or renewed negotiations by launching new acts of violence aimed at provoking harsh Israeli retaliation and, as a result, sabotaging progress. And the political aftermath of Lebanon for the Israeli leader suggests it's unlikely that any such provocation will go unpunished. So, while the leaders do their best to look busy on the peace front, they are unlikely right now to transcend their more customary hostile relationships.