Leading article: A direct challenge to the road map


The Independent

Published: 10 June 2006

Ehud Olmert is a man with a mission - that mission being to sell Israel's plan for unilateral withdrawal from parts, but not all, of the West Bank to as many foreign leaders in as short a time as possible.

No surprise if at first base, in the United States, he received warm uncritical words from George Bush. The next stops in Egypt and Jordan were trickier. But now Israel's Prime Minister, bearing his "realignment" plan, is descending on Europe, starting with London.

He is also doing his best to undermine the plan of the Palestinian President, Mahmood Abbas, to hold a referendum on Palestinian recognition of Israel's right to exist.

In his interview with this newspaper Mr Olmert dismisses what many would describe as a courageous, progressive act as "meaningless". He rejects outright an initiative that has sprung from Israel's most inveterate opponents, the Palestinian prisoners, and which - precisely on account of that fact - may provide a firm platform for a genuine dialogue - as opposed to a one-sided conversation - on withdrawal from the Occupied Territories.

Mr Olmert's obvious contempt for his Palestinian counterpart's move will lead many to conclude that his mask has slipped and that Israel does not truly want a dialogue, or not one of the kind that Mr Abbas proposes. For years Israel's diplomats have shed crocodile tears over the way, to quote the Israeli diplomat Abba Eban, Palestinians "never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity". Now, as it seems Palestinians are not so keen to miss this latest opportunity after all, Mr Olmert waves it away. It is to be hoped, when Tony Blair sits down with Israel's leader on Monday, that he refuses to take Mr Olmert's reading of this situation at face value. It may suit Israel's Prime Minister to claim he has no "partner" and has to forge ahead alone, but Mr Blair must point out this is not quite the case. He should remind his guest that recent polls in the West Bank record a big majority in favour of Mr Abbas's call for mutual recognition and a two-state solution, and that the initial opposition to a referendum by the Hamas-led government grows feebler daily.

As he presents himself in this interview, Mr Olmert poses a direct challenge to the British and European vision of Middle East peace based on the road map. Given his absolutist views, they will, therefore, either have to abandon the road map, or face down Mr Olmert.