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Commentary: Ramon and Abbas comments dampen peace talk prospects

By Ira Sharkansky

Ira Sharkansky

JERUSALEM–Depending on one’s perspective, Haim Ramon is either a naughty boy or wise man of Israeli politics. Currently 60 years old, he has been prominent since he took one of the conventional routes to national affairs via leadership of student politics. He was secretary of the Labor Party youth wing when he was first elected to the Knesset at the age of 33. He has served as the chair of important Knesset Committees, and as a minister in several governments. He was a leading figure in the Labor Party until he joined with several colleagues and individuals from Likud to create Kadima.

His most recent post was Justice Minister in the government of Ehud Olmert, which he resigned in the process of being charged and found guilty of indecent conduct in 2007. His infraction was to impose a French kiss on a female soldier who had come to his office to be photographed with him. A peck on the cheek would have been more acceptable.

His most notable achievement came in the mid-1990s while serving as Secretary General of the Labor Federation. He did what policy analysts had been advocating for years: breaking the linkage between the country’s largest HMO and the Labor Federation, and setting in process a health reform that established other HMO’s, depoliticized the HMO linked to the Labor Federation, and required every citizen to enroll in one of the HMOs whose fees and benefits would be regulated by the Health Ministry. For this, Ramon was pilloried by Labor Party aparachniks who lost their source of funding, but gained wide praise from others.
Ramon resigned from the Knesset in 2009, but has continued as chair of Kadima’s Council. He appears frequently on Israeli media, articulate and forceful as he explains one of his current proposals, typically at odds with the government of the day.
Now he is in the headlines for a lunch meeting with the Palestinian official known as the chief negotiator with Israel. They met in the dining room of the American Colony Hotel, an upscale boutique facility in an Arab neighborhood of Jerusalem that is a favorite of visiting journalists, Palestinians, and Israelis who appreciate the setting and its atmosphere. Another diner, who sat near them, has reported what is claimed to be a word by word.report of their discussion. Both participants deny the details, but the report is credible for those who know Ramon, and his criticisms of Benyamin Netanyahu. Shimon Peres also denies his role in the event, but those who know Peres’ record may consider that element to be credible. 
According to the report, Ramon said he was acting on the Peres’ advice, and urged the Palestinians to reject the prospect of direct negotiations with Netanyahu. Ramon said that the Prime Minister would not give them anything. The implication was that they could get more from Kadima Party leader Tzipi Livni and Ramon, backed up by the urging of the Obama White House and ranking Europeans.
One can quarrel about the substance of Ramon’s comments. I doubt that there are many Israelis who genuinely believe that it will be possible to achieve an agreement with the Palestinians in the near future, or if Netanyahu is prepared to make the kind of effort requiring him to wrestle with his party colleagues, settlers, and a broad swath of Israeli public opinion.
Leaving that aside, however, it appears that Ramon has broken the rule about undercutting a national leader involved in delicate international maneuvers. In Israel as in a number of other countries, the informal rules allow severe criticism of domestic policy moves, but expect a minimum of restraint on major issues of foreign policy. In this case, the details concern not only the most prominent item on the national agenda, but also one that involves the governments of the United States and Western Europe.
If Ramon’s conversation was indiscreet, and may prove costly for him, his Kadima colleagues, and Shimon Peres, the Palestinian leader, Mahoud Abbas has been reported as saying something no less damaging to the prospects desired by Barack Obama and others. Speaking at a Cairo conference of the Arab League, he said that while he would accept NATO troops to keep the peace between a Palestinian State and Israel, he would not accept any Jews among the NATO contingent. He also said that he would not allow any Jews to live in the Palestinian State.
The comments received some coverage on Israeli radio news, but may have been removed from subsequent broadcasts in an effort to preserve at least some semblance of an ongoing process. However, the details are being sent around by Israeli bloggers, which may be enough to keep them alive and to kill any chances of reaching an accord. 
Those who see Abbas as the only hope of extracting something from the Palestinians that will contribute to peace may deny that he was quoted accurately, or attribute the comments to Zionist disinformation. They gain  credence in the light of widespread, and vicious comments about Jews among his constituents.. 
Peace lovers of the world wake up. You have work to do.
Sharkansky is professor emeritus of political science at Hebrew University
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