Ehud Olmert stated on Monday that "It is impossible to repeat that the 2002 Road Map is a strategic asset for Israel and at the same time to ignore our obligations. Let us admit to ourselves: We committed not to built new settlements - we won't build new settlements. We promised not to expropriate land - we won't expropriate. We promised to raze illegal outposts - so certainly, we will raze them." How much credence should we put in these three promises and what is the declaration’s significance?
Bismarck is reputed to have warned against believing promises made on eve of elections, wars, and weddings. It is probably a good idea to add to this list promises made on the eve of peace conferences. A new round is to start in Annapolis next week.
Olmert carefully omitted from his list the obligation to freeze settlement activities, including natural growth due to births and the formation of new families. The Israeli promise to freeze settlements under the Road Map is now dead letter. Indeed existing settlements will continue to grow. As the past record demonstrates, Jewish settlements in the West Bank can either expand or shrink; they are never frozen. The raison d’être of the settlements is expansion and, consequently, the settlers are mobilized by any threat of freeze.
But Olmert’s other promises are significant in themselves. One of the great Palestinian worries is the building of new housing for Jews by the Israeli government in the E-1 area. This is the last remaining unsettled area that connects the Old City and some of the other Arab neighborhoods to the West Bank. Building in E-1 would put the cork in the bottle of the Israeli encirclement of East Jerusalem by Jewish townships. Presumably the promise not to build new settlement signals a willingness not to expand into this area. That we have come this far, namely to a point where a single new settlement can sever East Jerusalem from a future Palestinian state shows just how late in the game of peacemaking we are and how devastating a failure of the Annapolis talks can potentially be.
Olmert’s other promise to begin dismantling illegal settlements is also significant, especially, if in contrast to similar promises given in the past, it will be implemented. Such policy’s importance is not due to its impact on settlements –after all, for most of the word all settlements are illegal—but to its impact on the settlers. Dismantling any settlement, whether authorized or not by the government, is a major manifestation of Israeli political will. It will demonstrate that the settlers’ support is limited and their stranglehold on the peace process is broken. One of Sharon’s contradictory legacies was the object lesson of two withdrawals from the Sinai and the Gaza Strip. Olmert was at Sharon’s side during the latter and during the last election campaign run on the platform of continuing the process in the West Bank. But if nothing concrete comes out of Annapolis he will be able to conveniently forget this pre-peace conference promise. One more false promise for Bismarck to chalk up.
Finally, the significance of Olmert’s promises is that they will allow Saudi Arabia to attend the Annapolis conference. In fact, for the Israelis this might be the real lure of the conference. But it is probably equally important for the Saudis themselves to sit down with the Israelis. The Saudis, after the inconclusive Israel-Hizbullah war of last summer and the Iranian nuclear sabre rattling, are intent on pulling together the Sunnis of the Middle East. For the purposes of an anti-Iranian and an anti-Iranian-supported-Shi’a coalition, the Israelis seem to qualify as honorary Sunnis.