Olmert — Israel's 'if-only' man

It is the crazy dream of the Israeli peace camp. A perma-tanned, cigar-smoking Ehud Olmert rises from his political grave to unite Israel's centre-left, beats Benjamin Netanyahu in the upcoming elections and signs a peace deal with the Palestinians.

In a scene straight from a best-of collection of Israeli political soap operas, Olmert, a convicted criminal and the man who supposedly came close to sealing a deal with Mahmoud Abbas in 2009, has been dropping enigmatic hints about his return to the fray.

What happens in the next episode is anybody's guess. Olmert has been convicted of breach of trust and may soon face an appeal from the state prosecutor against his acquittal - in the same trial - on more serious corruption charges. That is without counting a separate bribery trial, which is yet to begin. True, Israelis are used to seeing their politicians in the dock - Aryeh Deri, now re-installed as head of Shas, was convicted in 2000 of taking $155,000 in bribes - and could turn a blind eye. But the High Court, which could disqualify Olmert from running on the basis of any of these cases, may not be so forgiving.

A rebirth of "Olmert the saviour" looks even more pie-in-the-sky when one considers that the majority of Israelis agree with Bibi that security means a focus on Iran's nuclear programme. If re-engaging in the peace process is one of Olmert's biggest selling points, Bibi has spent most of his term successfully burying the issue of the occupation under the simpler and more imminent threat of a nuclear Iran. According to a recent poll, the Israeli public is largely in favour of a two-state solution but deeply pessimistic about the chances of it leading to peace.

Another profound problem for the pro-engagement camp is that the peace narratives spun by both sides have often been excuses for not acting. Conventional Israeli wisdom says that peace talks are an exercise in futility because the Palestinians have not accepted that Israel should exist, or that they are unwilling to move without the support of Hamas. On the Palestinian side, settlement-building is used as evidence that Israel has no intention of making peace.

The 2008-2009 negotiations between Abbas and Olmert exposed such arguments as political posturing. They came tantalisingly close to securing a deal on the creation of two states, agreeing on key principles such as the sharing of Jerusalem and a limited right of return for Palestinians, and coming close to a land-swap which would have given Israel large proportions of the main settlement blocs.

Ultimately, Olmert had to withdraw from negotiations due to swirling corruption allegations and the Gaza war, and Abbas "agonised" over the deal, asking for more time than was available. But Olmert - ironically for someone convicted of breach of trust - demonstrated to the Israeli public what could be done once a degree of faith had been built up between the two sides.

All that is water under the bridge. The question of whether there is a peace map that both sides can agree on has become irrelevant as neither Abbas nor Bibi have been willing or able to sell the peace process to their electorates. Bibi has avoided discussions about engaging with the Palestinians in order to hold together a coalition of the religious and nationalist right. Abbas has ridden popular mistrust of the peace process by continuing his attempt to secure unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state at the UN.

It is perilous that a comatose peace process now suits both sides. With the second intifada fresh in their minds, a militarised West Bank amounts to the best of a bad situation for Israelis. Politically weakened, the Palestinian leadership is content to pile international pressure on Israel in forums such as the UN. Meanwhile, a bi-national state evolves in the vacuum: the tragedy of a one-state solution awaits both Israelis and Palestinians if both sides continue along the same path.

There are many "ifs" between here and a renewed peace process led by Olmert. Legal battles aside, he would need to join forces with one or two non-Kadima players to beat Bibi. Yair Lapid and Aryeh Deri - one a volatile, unknown quantity and the other another convicted criminal - are possibilities. But the crazy dream is Israel's best hope of averting a slow but sure descent into disaster.

Orlando Radice is foreign editor of the JC

Last updated: 11:33am, October 26 2012