Robert Novak

The broader pre-conditions for talks are Olmert's refusals to include in negotiations any discussion of a return of Arab refugees to greater Palestine and a withdrawal of Israel to its 1967 borders. Negotiating those points does not mean that they will be conceded. Indeed, Bush in 2004 assured Sharon of U.S. guarantees against a massive return of Palestinian refugees or a rollback to unsafe borders. But setting pre-conditions for talks is a classic mechanism for escaping talks altogether.

Indeed, Olmert continues a boycott policy against the Palestinian Authority because of Hamas' election victory and Ismail Haniyeh as prime minister. The presence of Hamas in the Palestinian government is cited as justification for the absence of anybody from the negotiating table.

It surely is up to Bush. When Rice made her previous visit to Israel about six weeks ago, it was announced by the Israeli government that Olmert had been on the phone with Bush a day earlier and that they "see eye-to-eye." That insured the three-cornered talks in Jerusalem between Rice, Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas would accomplish nothing substantial.

Haaretz political columnist and editorial writer Akiva Eldar, a speaker at Tuesday's conference, wrote in Monday's newspaper: "As a rare and historic opportunity appears on the horizon, a leadership of different dimensions is needed." He was talking about Olmert, but he could have referred to Bush as well.

Nothing could be accomplished now without Bush pressuring Olmert. Bush's original intentions to broker Israeli-Palestinian peace were sidetracked by the 9/11 attack and subsequent U.S. military operations. The many American presidential candidates of both parties do not want to take risks on this issue. A mere statement of sympathy for the Palestinians by Sen. Barack Obama brought massive criticism. The question is whether Eldar's "historic opportunity" will be gone when a new American president takes office.

Robert Novak

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

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