The Roadblocks on the Road Map for Mideast Peace Talks

President Bush may have "high hopes," but few in the region do.


A Palestinian child is carried during a protest after people stormed the Rafah border crossing with Egypt.


Corrected on 1/24/08: An earlier version had an incorrect date for the release of the final Winograd Report. The report is expected to be released January 30.

JERUSALEM— Since President Bush's recent two-day pep talk to Israeli and Palestinian leaders, the remaining threads holding the peace process together have frayed to almost nothing.

Immediately after Islamic militants in Gaza took advantage of Bush's visit to escalate their rocket attacks on Israeli border towns, Israeli forces more than made up for lost time by pounding the enemy, killing as many as 20 Gazans, nearly all of them Islamic guerrillas, in a single day. The tit-for-tat reached the point where Israel imposed a siege on the Gaza Strip, blocking deliveries of fuel and food, darkening the homes of hundreds of thousands of residents and driving Gaza to the brink of catastrophe, until world pressure induced Israel to lift the siege—for the time being.

Under such circumstances, Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian leader in the West Bank, and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert can hardly make progress together. This is not what Bush had in mind when he spoke in Jerusalem of his "high hopes."

The president had also hoped to fortify Olmert's political standing at home, reportedly urging Israeli cabinet ministers at dinner to stand by their boss. But this effort, too, has come up short. A key minister present at the dinner, Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the ultranationalist Yisrael Beitenu (Israel Our Home) party, has since bolted Olmert's coalition, ostensibly in a protest against Olmert's decision to begin talks with the Palestinians on the so-called core issues—borders, Palestinian refugees, Jerusalem—as encouraged by President Bush.

But Olmert's big challenge is due to arrive January 30 when the final inquiry commission report on the 2006 Lebanon War, whose less-than-victorious outcome embittered the Israeli public, is scheduled to be published. The April preliminary report by the Winograd Commission (named for its chairman, Judge Eliyahu Winograd) blamed Olmert for "serious failure in exercising judgment, responsibility and prudence" during the 34-day war but stopped short of calling for his resignation. The other two wartime decision makers blamed in the first report, military chief Dan Halutz and Defense Minister Amir Peretz, were forced out as a result. Olmert, who had the final word on decisions in the war, is the only one of the troika left. His political rivals, especially right-wing opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu, have been waiting for the final report to generate the renewed outrage and pressure to finally bring him down.

Bringing Olmert down, though, will most likely require the resignation of his senior coalition partner, the Labor Party led by Ehud Barak, who succeeded Peretz as defense minister. And Barak is showing no enthusiasm to make good on his past pledge to take his party out of the government before Winograd II. Such a move would almost certainly lead to new elections, and all polls show Netanyahu way out in front of Barak and Olmert.

Since the war, Olmert has become deeply unpopular with the public—but so are many if not most of the 120 members of Knesset. And if they vote to bring down the government and hold new elections, a lot of them would probably lose their jobs. This calculation has been the key to Olmert's survival in office, and if he gets through the final Winograd report, he will have the warmth of many a Knesset seat, not the length of Bush's coattails, to thank.