Robert Novak

JERUSALEM -- An overriding melancholy here this Holy Week follows Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's mission to Jerusalem the previous week. To Arabs and Jews seeking meaningful peace negotiations, it confirmed no progress toward a two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians is likely for the remainder of George W. Bush's presidency.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert rejected Rice's offer for her to participate in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations for a permanent peace treaty. The word in the Olmert government is that the prime minister's reluctance even to begin talks at this time is fully shared by President Bush. Rice is sincere in her desire for peace, but she can accomplish nothing important without the full support of her chief.

The aphorism (originated by Israeli statesman Abba Eban) that the Arabs "never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity" now can be applied to Israel. The Riyadh Declaration indicated willingness of the Arab world to consider a peaceful solution. Now, belief here among peace-seekers is that nothing will happen until a new president enters the Oval Office in 2009.

That was the consensus Tuesday at a conference on Middle East policy held in Jerusalem by the Morley Institute of Washington in which I took part. Deal W. Hudson, the institute's executive director, expressed hope that Bush might yet grasp the reins of peace while he is still in office. But a diverse assemblage of Palestinians (both Muslim and Christians), Israelis, Americans and other foreigners held little hope for a Bush initiative in the closing months of his regime.

The atmosphere has changed since I was here for Holy Week a year ago. Israeli self-confidence then was at a peak, with the newly installed Olmert openly avowing the unilateral solution to the Palestinian problem developed by his predecessor, Ariel Sharon. Behind that posture was confidence in military superiority. The unhappy results of the Lebanon incursion have modified Israeli expectations and caused a different tone. Olmert publicly indicates a willingness to talk, and the Haaretz newspaper quoted him as saying the Arabs' Riyadh summit "is evidence of a change."

But the moderates attending Tuesday's conference viewed this as rhetoric. Olmert told Rice here last week that any negotiations must be preceded by the release of the Israeli soldier seized by Hamas fighters last June 25.

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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