“Peace is achieved through concessions. We all know that,” said embattled Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to crowd of businessmen last week, implying that parts of Jerusalem could be offered to the Palestinians in exchange for peace.
This is not the first time Olmert indicated that he was willing to split up Israel’s capital. Last month, he publicly pondered whether it was really “necessary to also add the Shuafat refugee camp, Sawakra, Walaje and other villages and define them as part of Jerusalem.”
Drawing from the history of other desperate Israeli prime ministers who have put Israel up on the auction block, Olmert’s time in office is probably near its end.
The prime minister’s recent statements can be seen only as a last gasp effort to revive his flatlining premiership. After demonstrating an utter lack of leadership during Israel’s confrontation with Hizbullah last summer in Lebanon, few Israelis have any confidence in their prime minister. Indeed, he has miserably low approval ratings (as low as 2% in recent polls), with political challengers circling for the right moment to pounce.
Olmert is now chasing peace with the Palestinians at all costs, in a desperate attempt to secure his place in world history, knowing full well that future Israeli history books will not be kind. This fits a sad but familiar trend of other sputtering Israeli prime ministers in recent history.
Take Israel’s current Defense Minister Ehud Barak. Under pressure from the Clinton administration during the July 2000 Camp David talks, he became the first Israeli Prime Minister to officially consider re-dividing Jerusalem. Despite the fact that this infuriated a majority of the Israeli public, as demonstrated in popularity polls, the embattled Barak forged ahead. When the talks ultimately failed, thanks to Yasir Arafat’s intransigence, the Palestinians launched the al-Aqsa intifada. Barak was blamed for the violence, leading to an even steeper drop in his popularity. Ariel Sharon went on to win the 2001 elections by a landslide 63 percent.
Barak’s plummeting popularity even before the intifada was inextricably linked to the former Israeli commando’s willingness to violate Israel’s longstanding red lines: no division of Jerusalem, no return to the 1949 borders, no return of Arab refugees, and no foreign army west of the Jordan River. But, faced with a legacy of failure, Barak clung to the notion that a peace deal ceding parts of Jerusalem might ultimately secure his place in history. In the end, it only ensured his defeat.
One can also argue that Shimon Peres, who became prime Minister by default in 1995 after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, also ensured his own demise by dangling Jerusalem as a concession to the Palestinians. An architect of the Oslo process, Peres pushed tenaciously forward toward peace, even when Israel was bloodied by a brutal campaign of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad suicide bombings. Despite the fact that the PA never reigned in Hamas, Peres never stopped pushing for peace. And he never took the question of Jerusalem off the table. Instead, he allowed the Palestinians to hold elections in Jerusalem in 1996, which was largely viewed as a gesture of possible future concessions. Thus, when Benjamin Netanyahu challenged Peres in the next election, he hammered Peres’ blind commitment to a failing peace process, and charged that Peres would even surrender control of Jerusalem. This, alone, may have cost Peres the election.
When Olmert, Barak, and Peres raised the specter of Jerusalem, their political shelf lives had all but expired. Indeed, when Israeli politicians discuss the fate of Jerusalem to please the U.S. State Department or Palestinian negotiators, they are indicating to the Israeli public that they have given up on popular support. Instead, they make a last ditch effort to secure their own place in history.
Olmert’s recent talk of dividing Jerusalem is a sign that new Israeli elections are almost assuredly around the corner. Refusing to go quietly, he is endangering the unity of Israel’s capital just as his moment in history comes to an end.
Jonathan Schanzer is director of policy at the Jewish Policy Center, and editor of inFocus Quarterly. Asaf Romirowsky is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East Forum and Manager of Israel & Middle East Affairs for the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.