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NY Times News Analysis: "Olmert Peace Effort Elicits Cynicism and Hope"

"It is fair to say that his foreign policy is much more progressive than you would have expected," said Tzaly Reshef, a founder of Peace Now and chairman of one of the country's large publishing houses.

May 23, 2008

By ETHAN BRONNER (JERUSALEM) - In recent days, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert simultaneously began groundbreaking talks with Syria, discussed a possible truce with Hamas and facilitated a huge Palestinian investment conference in the West Bank - all while under serious criminal investigation on suspicion of bribery.

The mix of his surprisingly vast diplomatic ambition and humiliating personal circumstances has riveted Israel and raised pointed questions about the links between the two and where the country is headed.

Since Israeli strategic doctrine has long posited that only one set of peace negotiations can be successfully pursued at a time, and since Mr. Olmert has never earned a reputation as a strategic visionary - he is a former mayor and trade minister with no military or foreign policy background - this driven juggling act has aroused cynicism.

It did not go unnoticed, for example, that at the precise hour on Wednesday evening that the police released damning new details of the investigation against him (prosecutors say envelopes of cash were passed to him for personal use), Mr. Olmert made a speech in Tel Aviv that started with his hopes for the Syria talks, thereby upstaging the police on the evening news.

The newspapers were filled with derisive commentary on Thursday about a prime minister who hopes to trade away the strategic Golan Heights to a sworn enemy when he is facing an inquiry into his integrity and trustworthiness.

"The Golan in exchange for an envelope full of dollars won't be well received," fumed Sever Plocker, a widely read columnist for Yediot Aharonot. "It is doomed to fail: Any agreement that Olmert might present to the public will appear to be stained from the outset."

Mr. Plocker went on to say that he favored a land-for-peace arrangement, but that Mr. Olmert and his putative partner, President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, whose father turned away from a similar deal in 2000, could not pull it off.

"I can say about myself that I am a person who is prepared to return a lot of territories in exchange for a lot of peace, but by whom and to whom?" he asked. "By Ehud Olmert and to Assad Junior? That makes me laugh so hard it brings tears to my eyes. The former is at an unprecedented nadir in terms of public trust. The latter has proven with his latest actions that he is a degenerate, benighted, reckless and ruthless man."

But others say that while Mr. Olmert's legal travails cannot be ignored, they must not overshadow what he may accomplish.

"Because Olmert is under such a cloud, one doesn't give him the benefit of the doubt or proper credit," said Shlomo Avineri, a professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a former director general of the Foreign Ministry. "It appears that when it comes to strategic thinking, there is a fair amount there. Whether or not it can be carried out because of the internal weakness is unclear."

One point that several analysts have made is that an effort to make a deal with Syria, while not politically popular, is favored by the military intelligence establishment, which believes that Syria is serious and that the Golan can be yielded under the proper circumstances.

Moreover, while it may appear that Mr. Olmert is bucking traditional doctrine by negotiating on several tracks at once, there is a unifying strategic goal that was not so evident in the 1990s: the desire to stop the rise of Iranian power. By simultaneously seeking peace with Mr. Assad in Syria and with the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, Mr. Olmert hopes to undermine Iranian influence over Syria and the power of Iranian-backed radical Palestinian groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

That is what Mr. Olmert has told Mr. Abbas. And while aides to Mr. Abbas say they are watching the Syrian talks with some concern, they acknowledge that the two efforts could be complementary.

Israeli military analysts also say that the very act of negotiating with Syria could bring benefits on Israel's northern border because Syria has considerable influence over Hezbollah, the anti-Israel militant group in southern Lebanon. And while a truce with Hamas does not look likely, negotiating over it could also act to reduce its anti-Israel terrorism.

Despite his ethical and legal troubles, Mr. Olmert is therefore receiving support from a number of those on Israel's left.

"It is fair to say that his foreign policy is much more progressive than you would have expected," said Tzaly Reshef, a founder of Peace Now and chairman of one of the country's large publishing houses. "Our position for a long while now has been to support Olmert for this. I must say that this doesn't mean that I am ready to say that one should ignore the criminal investigation. I want him to continue to do what can be done with this government, but it doesn't look to me that he can complete the job."

A senior government official, who said he could not speak for attribution on such a politically delicate topic, agreed in part. He said that what Mr. Olmert was doing with the Palestinians "is much less than meets the eye." Nonetheless, he, like others, contended that the new Syrian talks could prove significant.

"This seems bigger than any one individual," he said. "Olmert is, in a way, committing his successors who, by the way, may be coming in soon. I don't think he will be the one to complete this. His motives may be suspicious. But something has happened here that will probably go beyond this prime minister."