Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Olmert a weak negotiator?

An opinion piece in Maariv on Monday November 13 by Menachem Benn (via the Arabic translation in Al-Quds al-Arabi) gave voice to fears by Israeli conservatives that Prime Minister Olmert perhaps doesn't grasp firmly enough the correct principles of negotiating, and might end up giving away the store. Benn begins with two examples: First the case of negotiating the return of the Israeli soldier, noting that Olmert has already said Israel is ready to release "many" Palestinian prisoners, just not to Hamas but only to Abbas: "As if we were in kindergarten," writes Benn, expressing the additional fear that probably the release of the fighter Bargouthi has also been already committed to.

Benn's second example of Olmert's bad negotiating technique has to do with his defensive reaction to the question of negotiating with Syria. I'm not exactly sure what Benn is saying in this connection, except that he thinks Olmert's refusal to negotiate isn't principled enough, and that he is too close to agreeing to negotiate, which in turn would involve preparations for giving up the Golan Heights. In any event, for Benn, this is another case of negotiating weakness.

But his biggest beef is on the question of the Palestinians' "right of return", something Palestinians always insist on and Israel traditionally rejects, but Benn says he detects a creeping infiltration of the idea into the Israeli negotiating posture. For instance, an Israel cabinet minister reacted favorably to the Saudi peace initiative, which included the right of return; then there was more recently favorable Israeli reaction to the Palestinian so-called "prisoners document" (a cross-faction Fatah-Hamas statement of agreement on basic principles) which was also based on the idea of the right of return. This has gone so far that when Abbas recently said in a statement that the Palestinians would absolutely not give up the right of return, no one in Israeli public life ventured to criticize that.

What has happened, says Benn, is that instead of Israel saying loud and clear that it sticks to the justice of its position against the rejection of the Arabs and the Palestinians, and instead of saying whoever talks about the right of return is ruling out the possibility of peace--instead of doing that, Israelis have started to differentiate between the "bad Arabs" who want to do away with Israel immediately, and the "good Arabs" who would do away with Israel in the longer term, via the right of return. It has come to this, says Benn that people think: "Peace is now; who cares if Israel is abolished later."

On the right of return, Benn doesn't accuse Olmert of any specific missteps, but clearly he is worried about a general lack of firmness.


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