Olmert's Political Turmoil Could be Chance for Peace

08/09/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Besieged Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced he will not seek re-election in the face of a growing wave of criminal investigations that have targeted his government conduct.

Olmert is expected to remain in office until elections are held later this year, but his announcement has put in question the future of the peace talks he helped initiate with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

But is the option for peace really over, again? Or does Olmert's predicament offer a real opportunity for him to be courageous and bold before he leaves office and initiate a peace deal that just could make real peace possible?

In announcing his retirement, Olmert has shed the political burden of doing what's in his best political interests. He can now act in the best interests of Israelis and the Palestinians by coming to terms with Abbas on a peace deal.

The possibility Olmert might in fact cut a real peace deal with the Palestinians is what is motivating extremists in Israel's government, like Benjamin Netanyahu, who helped destroy the Camp David and Oslo Peace Accords far more effectively than Hamas ever could dream, to call for early elections. Netanyahu doesn't want to wait for new elections. He wants Olmert out now.

Netanyahu and extremists like him in the Israeli government know that in the next few months, Olmert can, as Israel's legitimate prime minister, set in motion a new set of "facts on the ground" that might revive hope for peace by making compromise with the Palestinians possible.

Olmert has worked hard with Abbas to define a new path towards a peace accord, one that revives many of the injured concepts that were at the heart of the peace accord hammered out by Yitzhak Rabin and Yasir Arafat. Rabin was murdered by fanatics, some said were supporters of Netanyahu. Arafat died under an Israeli military siege imposed by Netanyahu and fellow extremist Ariel Sharon.

Netanyahu and Sharon did all they could to kill the Rabin peace accord, rejecting the concept of trading land for peace and giving Palestinians national sovereignty in the West Bank and even in parts of Arab East Jerusalem.

Yet Olmert could put into writing what his predecessor, Ehud Barak, refused to put on paper for Arafat in the final months of 2000 when the Camp David peace negotiations, brokered by lame duck President Bill Clinton, collapsed.

The collapse of the peace process at Camp David ignited one of the most brutal and vicious waves of violence to sweep through Israel and the Palestinian relations as extremists on both sides fought to seal the coffin on peace.

Yet, why wouldn't the push for a last minute deal by a lame duck Israeli Prime Minister with time on his hands not spark the same kind of reaction from those who want peace, renewing hope that peace can happen?

For far too long, extremists in Israel and Palestine have had too great of an influence on the peace process. Whenever Rabin and Arafat moved forward towards a peace deal, the extremists struck causing great pain and putting political pressure on Israel's leaders to back away from the talks.

When Rabin refused to back away from the talks, he was murdered.

As Rabin's successors tried to revive the peace process in the face of growing public weariness with the terrorism and violence, politics became the turning point. Barak lost his re-election bid to Sharon, who vowed to turn back the pages of the peace process. The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 helped Sharon and Netanyahu sign the death warrant for Camp David. Peace has been incarcerated ever since in a prison built on lost hope, lack of confidence and a weariness of faith.

Any peace deal that Olmert negotiates would face a serious and fast challenge from his critics. But, that action could also help re-ignite hope, rebuild confidence and restore faith in the belief that the only solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict is one based on a negotiated compromise and land for peace.

Olmert could not be more disliked than he already is. His popularity ratings are among the lowest of any prime minister in Israel's history.

But in one quick move to strike a real deal with Abbas and the Palestinians on a peace accord, Olmert could redeem himself.

It won't prevent the Israeli legal system from pursuing his alleged crimes, but it just might be exactly the kind of unusual move that the peace process needs right now. It is a political risk so great that no other Israeli politician since Rabin has been willing to take, knowing it could jeopardize their career.

But, in Olmert's case, he has no career left and the only risk he faces is that this kind of gamble might just work.