No, this is not a strategic policy change by the man who told Condoleezza Rice in Jerusalem on October 4 that he would not be releasing prisoners before the abducted soldier's release.
There's no surrender to blackmail on the part of the man who said in the Knesset, five days after the outbreak of the war, that he will bring the boys back home under terms that would not turn abductions into a norm. What we have here is Palestinian cunning and Olmert's desire to be the perfect host.
And here's the tale: The Palestinian trap for Olmert was laid in his own home, at his official Jerusalem residence.
Abbas' and Olmert's aides prepared the meeting between the two in detail for months. The question of freeing Palestinian prisoners was the main controversy between Jerusalem and Ramallah. Abbas, who is familiar with his people's desires, wanted to see prisoners released. Olmert, who has the great burden of Shalit's release to contend with, refused to do so before Gilad returns to his Galilee home.
The meeting between the two was delayed due to the disagreement. However, the American and European pressure worked. Olmert's and Abbas' less than splendid status also made a difference.
Agreement was reached on the details, including the funds to be released, the removal of roadblocks, the upgrading of crossings, but not the issue of prisoner release. Olmert wanted Shalit before anything else, which Abbas was unable to provide. We know his relationship with Khaled Mashaal is not the best.
And so, Saturday night, Abbas and his entourage were received with kisses and the raising of the Palestinian flag at the prime minister's Jerusalem residence. While sitting around the nice-looking dinner table, Saeb Erekat raised the controversial issue.
He did this cunningly. He did not demand a total prisoner release. He only asked for a small gesture ahead of the upcoming Feast of Sacrifice, a sort of bonus to the wonderful friendship being formed around the table. Olmert, who went out of his way in order to show the world he is the perfect host, was facing a catch-22 situation.
He could have said no, and sent Abbas home frustrated and weak. He didn't want to do this, because then who would save both of them from Hamas? Olmert acted as a true host, and despite the embarrassment, told the Palestinians he will look into the issue.
A day later he held a mini-survey at the government session. Peres, Peretz and Mofaz said "ok." Ynet's survey of ministers a day later showed that most government ministers back the gesture: 12 in favor as opposed to five objectors, five who are undecided, and two who did not provide a response.
As things stand now, Olmert will be releasing the prisoners as a gift to the Feat of Sacrifice for Abbas and his crafty men. Shalit, the soldier who was abducted while safeguarding the homeland, will continue to rot in Hamas captivity.
Yet Olmert, who is no less cunning, will say that the forced gesture to the Palestinians is aimed at advancing his release. After all, we cannot contradict the argument that he did everything, including breaking his word, in order to bring the armored corps soldier back home.
Livni puts out fires
"Peace with Syria is a strategic objective," Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni told the Knesset defense and Foreign Affairs Committee. Olmert raised an eyebrow and wondered what happened to the lady who dared to change the State of Israel's strategy this way. Now, try to explain to the world that you didn't mean it, that somebody misunderstood your words, and that you see things eye to eye, subserviently, with the boss.
Every rookie politician knows that the Knesset Defense and Foreign Affairs committee is prone to leaks like a rain-filled sieve. Everyone knows that if they do not wish to see their words in the form of twisted headlines, they must prepare in advance a spokesperson that would disprove, contradict, or simply decide for journalists what the minister, army chief, Shin Bet chief, or Mossad chief really wanted to say. Livni, law and behold, didn't do that.
The moment Livni said, Tuesday morning, that peace with Syria is a strategic objective, the message left the room and spread across the country and world. Israel is changing its position regarding negotiations with Assad junior, journalists wrote.
The public relations advisor had nothing left to do but run with his hose to put out the fire. It wasn't simple to explain, to those who even bothered to call, that there's no change of direction in Israel's attitude to Damascus; that Jerusalem, as is true for its patron in Washington, remains opposed and refuses to speak with the young and "evil" Alawite leader until he becomes a good boy.
What's the lesson? First, all those invited to speak before the Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee would be wise to arrive with prepared remarks and a clear doctrine. The leakers already proved their lack of understanding even when it comes to clearer politicians than Livni.
Secondly, the public relations advisor would do well to remove the fireman suit and replace it with a pharmacist's robe. A preventative medication is better than a cold stream of water from the office at Jerusalem's 4 Kaplan Street.
Thirdly, Ms. Foreign Minister, if you have no intention to change policy and confront the leader, don't say peace with Syria is an Israeli strategic objective. This is not the bon-ton of the talking heads in Washington and Jerusalem. You will have plenty of other opportunities once Bush and Olmert understand, finally, that they may be missing out on a big-time opportunity here.
To Yuli Tamir, the education minister: Even though we're talking about earmarking resources to the ultra-Orthodox sector, we must ensure equality among all Israeli children. How do you view the fact that tens of thousands of students in Israel are only receiving their education budget through charity?
To Shaul Mofaz, the minister of transportation: You get high grades for the devotion to the task of bringing down the number of road accident casualties. Without an ounce of sarcasm we'll say that only few who were thrown out of the 14th floor office of the Defense Ministry would show such determination at the transportation minister's office.
Amir Peretz, the defense minister: Even if it snowed and Jerusalem was jammed, it is improper to let the Egyptian foreign minister wait for more than 40 minutes for your meeting at Jerusalem's King David hotel. After all, you know how important this is in the Middle East.
Binyamin Ben Eliezer, cabinet member and ultimate interviewee: You can decline a radio interview on occasion if there's nothing to say. It's much less embarrassing than saying nothing for five whole minutes.