- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 19, 2007

TEL AVIV — Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrives in Israel today on her fifth Middle East shuttle mission this year, shooting for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal that could be the linchpin to an upcoming Arab-Israeli peace meeting sponsored by the Bush administration.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas are thought to be negotiating a broad accord on explosive final-status issues like dividing Jerusalem, redrawing a joint border and the fate of Palestinian Arab refugees — the first such talks in more than six years.

But by relying on two leaders struggling for their political lives, the gambit defies the conventional peacemaking logic that agreements require strong leaders to push through contentious compromises at home.

Mr. Olmert faces multiple corruption investigations and a final inquiry into last year’s botched war in Lebanon, while Mr. Abbas struggles to rule in the West Bank after Hamas’ forceful takeover in the Gaza Strip.

“Precisely because they’re weak they need to do something dramatic to extend their political careers. It’s a paradox,” said Gershon Baskin, a co-director of the Israel-Palestinian Center for Research and Information. “The kind of decisions that are being dealt with usually require strong leaders.”

Although there is no shortage of risk factors weighing down prospects for success, expectations are buoyed by the first political talks in six years and the fact that Mr. Olmert and Mr. Abbas have met regularly over the summer.

Peace advocates see a narrow window of opportunity with two leaders in power who both advocate painful concessions for peace. Palestinians point out that Israel couldn’t hope for a more moderate duo of top leaders — Mr. Abbas and acting Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.

“There isn’t a better opportunity in the next 40 years,” said Qadoura Fares, a former minister from Mr. Abbas’ government. “There won’t be another president and prime minister who are moderates and peace supporters.”

To be sure, Fatah officials are pressing Mr. Abbas not to attend the peace summit if it falls short of a binding peace agreement, the Associated Press reported. Anything less would destroy Mr. Abbas’ standing among Palestinians, Mr. Fares explained.

Mr. Olmert, who has yet to make good on a promise to release Palestinian prisoners to mark the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, reportedly prefers a joint statement that wouldn’t necessarily require approval from the Israeli parliament.

“The danger is giving people hope and then taking it away. [Fatah] feels that the Israelis aren’t going to deliver,” said Mohammed Dajani, a professor of political science at Al Quds University. “The idea is weak leaders can become strong leaders, or historic leaders if they take historic steps.”

But even if the sides were to reach a groundbreaking accord, both would face considerable challenges selling it to their respective political constituencies.

Mr. Olmert’s popularity hit record lows earlier this year from fallout accompanying his botched management of the Lebanon war. Mr. Abbas struggles to reform his own government and boost security in the West Bank, while he battles Hamas for legitimacy in Gaza.

Avshalom Vilan, an Israeli lawmaker from the dovish Meretz party, said success depends on the degree of U.S. support to either leader, and the degree to which Washington pushes the sides to make far-reaching concessions.

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