In the wake of last week's resignation announcement from Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, much of the Israeli media and public have welcomed his decision to step down in September amid charges of corruption. Olmert's shortcomings notwithstanding, he was carrying the mandate of his Kadima party to pursue peace -- a choice that should not be denied its grandeur or be pawned off as a last effort to distract public attention from his personal troubles. As the Israelis currently face threats on multiple fronts, they must focus their national attention now to address these threats and not allow the internal political bickering in the race for Prime Minister to obscure the debate about critical national security concerns. Olmert's successor must make abundantly clear that Israel as a state has now made peace a strategic priority and must demonstrate even greater vigor and determination in the pursuit of ending the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Arabs and Israelis alike have every right to be skeptical about any of the players involved in the peace process be that Bush, Assad, Olmert, or Abbas, and I have my own share of doubts as well. I have never believed, however, that the Annapolis peace conference would produce results by the end of this year -- not because of my cynicism or because of bad faith on the part of the main players. There is simply just not enough time to hammer out an agreement of such complexity, especially when emotions run so high and when trust is virtually non-existent between parties.
Many Israelis tend to forget that Ariel Sharon created the Kadima Party for the express purpose of advancing the peace process by withdrawing from the Palestinian territories. Olmert has basically assumed Sharon's mantra and he would have started the peace talks with Syria much sooner had it not been for the vehement objection of President Bush to whom Olmert feels most indebted. I have always supported any peace effort regardless of by whom and under what circumstances these efforts are undertaken. Considering the intractability of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the continuing toll it exacts in life and resources, any progress made between Israel and its adversaries is better than achieving nothing. Those who accuse Olmert of potentially offering compromises deemed detrimental to Israel's national security for the sake of his legacy are not acknowledging the complex system of checks and balances ingrained in the Israeli political system. Israel is a democracy; Mr. Olmert cannot deliver anything to the Palestinians or the Syrians without the advice and the consent of his government and the Parliament. But if he can advance the peace process, however marginally, his successor can still build on it. Unlike Ehud Barak in January 2001, Olmert made no far-reaching concessions to the Palestinians or the Syrians as Barak did to commit his successor Ariel Sharon to the peace process.
After sixty years of bloody conflict and volatile conditions in the Middle East, with Iran threatening Israel existentially while racing to acquire nuclear weapons, I do not think Israel has the luxury of waiting for the perfect leader to make peace under perfect conditions. Peace with Syria would change in a very dramatic way the region's political and security landscape in Israel's favor. Making peace with Syria is not a luxury but a national necessity; Israel will have to return the Golan Heights whether it is now or in five, ten or even one-hundred years. The Golan will have to be returned if Israel wants to live in peace. Why not negotiate now and appreciably reduce Israel's security concerns with its two northern neighbors and free itself to focus on the threat of Iran? I happen to know first hand how the negotiations between Israel and Syria came about and I absolutely believe it was the right thing to do regardless of Olmert's personal problems and shortcomings, especially after the conduct of the second Lebanon war. Olmert's personal envoys to the negotiations with Syria were particularly careful not to commit Israel to specifics before understanding what precisely the Syrians are willing to do in exchange for the Golan.
As for the Palestinian track, should Israel simply wait until the multiple Palestinian factions settle their differences, however long this may take? Israel should negotiate with a legitimately elected moderate leader while still in office and make peace based on the inevitable two-state solution. Israel should not use the Palestinian internal conflict between Hamas and Fatah as an excuse to stall the peace negotiations but as a reason to redouble its efforts to reach an agreement with those Palestinians who are ready to commit themselves to peaceful co-existence.
Olmert had many reservations about the ability of his interlocutor Mahmoud Abbas to deliver on promises made, but he decided to reengage the Palestinians, especially after the Annapolis conference. From his perspective, which is shared by many Israelis, solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains the key to stability and normal relations in the region as its persistence feeds into extremism, eroding Israel's national security. Any progress made between Israel and the Palestinian Authority is significant because it recognizes the urgent need to bring an end to this debilitating conflict. Had Olmert waited for the next Prime Minister to initiate negotiations he would have been accused of being politically inept and inconsequential. Israel's peace talks with the Palestinians under Olmert's guidance were both legitimate and necessary. Whoever succeeds him must spare no time to proceed with the negotiations for bringing a two-state solution closer to reality while simultaneously pursuing peace with Syria.
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