JERUSALEM — Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas have spent more time alone together than any pair of Israeli and Palestinian leaders. They have sat for hours, in 12 meetings over the last 11 months, sharing pictures of their grandchildren and talking about a world in which those kids can grow up in peace.
Smoke fills Omert's study as Abbas, puffing on a Marlboro Red, describes the crushing burden of Israeli occupation in the West Bank. The Israeli prime minister lights up a cigar, lecturing the Palestinian Authority president on the need to stop Palestinian militias from plotting against his people.
Aides say these one-on-one conversations, conducted in English, have grown more relaxed as the two men ease into a backslapping familiarity -- a relationship warmer than any Israeli leader had with Abbas' late predecessor, Yasser Arafat.
If making peace were up to Olmert and Abbas alone, their compatriots might not be so skeptical that this quality time will pay off. The two leaders have a rough understanding of how to reach the goal of an independent Palestinian state, their aides say, but have been reluctant to write it down or say it publicly, given the political risks of the trade-offs required.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, November 28, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
Mideast hurdles: An article in Sunday's Section A about Israeli and Palestinian leaders facing hardened opposition to concessions for peace said Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1969. The occupation began in 1967.
Their rapport and their leadership will be tested severely in the coming months, after an international conference called by President Bush this week in Annapolis, Md., in an attempt to revive the peace process.
Both camps have hardened their positions since President Clinton oversaw the last major effort, with Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, at Camp David in 2000.
The collapse of those talks set off a Palestinian uprising. Israel seized more West Bank land for Jewish settlements and began walling itself off from the rest of the territory. It withdrew unilaterally from the Gaza Strip in 2005, only to see the enclave fall to Abbas' Islamic rival, Hamas, which vows to destroy the Jewish state.
Olmert and Abbas say they are ready to tackle the conflict's long-standing issues: the borders of a future Palestinian state, the status of Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees who fled when Israel gained independence in 1948.
The stakes for both are existential. Lacking the commanding authority of their immediate predecessors, each must calculate the wrath of hawkish rivals at home and the risk of losing office or even their lives.
The two men are bound by a common fear of Hamas, the rising influence of its Iranian benefactors and the spread of radical Islam. They share a belief that time is running out for a negotiated Israeli-Palestinian compromise over the same sliver of Earth.
Before leaving Saturday for Annapolis, Olmert said this might be Israel's last chance to strike a bargain that would guarantee its survival as a state with a Jewish majority. Without a deal, Abbas could yield to the idea of a one-state solution some Palestinians now favor in which Arabs might someday achieve a demographic majority in the region that includes Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
"We have a partner and we are not willing to postpone negotiations to a later date, at which our partner might not be capable of fulfilling the mission," Olmert said. "This is an opportunity. It should be taken."
For the first time since 1993, at the dawn of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, "the peace process is being taken up by two leaders who seem to believe that the other side is serious about creating peace," wrote analyst David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "It is precisely this underlying respect between Olmert and Abbas, alongside the fear of a Hamas-led alternative government, that seems to give hope."
Abbas, 72, is a staid but personable functionary who plodded up the Palestine Liberation Organization ranks. He has been a top negotiator since Arafat in effect recognized Israel in 1988 and began seeking a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, which Israel occupied in 1969.
In the three years since Arafat's death, Abbas has proved ineffectual at governance. Hamas won parliamentary elections last year, defeating Abbas' secular Fatah faction, then as attempts at a unity government foundered, drove Fatah authorities from Gaza in an armed rout this summer.
Abbas' sole strategy for ending Israeli occupation is to insist unceasingly on the game he knows best: negotiations.
His latest negotiating partner is 10 years his junior and new to the game. An affable lawyer and former businessman, Olmert entered national politics four years ago and moved up from deputy prime minister after his boss, Ariel Sharon, fell into a coma in January 2006.
Olmert has learned quickly, gaining a reputation as a shrewd politician. But he governs from the shaky middle ground of a broad coalition. His Kadima party consists of defectors from the right-wing Likud party who followed Sharon, and he faces a threat that many may return to Likud if he offers concessions to the Palestinians.