An important ritual has emerged for every new Israeli prime minister. The premier's first overseas trip goes from Washington to Cairo and from there to Jordan. Morocco used to be a station on the way. Each time, the importance of visiting the Arab friends increases, because the longer the occupation goes on, the more it depends on their cooperation. Egypt, for example, controls the border between it and Gaza, thus freeing Israel from the Philadelphi route. Gaza's economic lifeline goes through Egypt. Now, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has asked Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to let Palestinians use the airport at El Arish. Egypt has also taken upon itself the tasks of maintaining the hudna (cease-fire) declared by Hamas and of patching up the differences between Fatah, Hamas and the other Palestinian organizations.
Jordan is the pressure valve to the east. More than a hundred Palestinian factories in the West Bank and Gaza that were closed because of the security situation have reopened in Jordan. Jordan absorbs Palestinian families and students who cannot continue living in the West Bank, maintains the eastern border with Israel and, along with Egypt, has been boycotting the Palestinian Authority ever since Hamas was elected. Without that three-way cooperation, Israel would have to invent solutions for these matters.
But Israel behaves toward these two countries like a neighborhood bully who pours his garbage onto the neighbors' doorsteps. Three years ago this month, Ariel Sharon, George W. Bush and Mahmoud Abbas met in Aqaba under the patronage of King Abdullah. Their speeches raised hopes for a renewal of the peace process. Abbas publicly declared that there is no military solution to the conflict and expressed opposition to violence. Sharon spoke about the fulfillment of the road map, and Abdullah was convinced that such an important meeting at his palace was the start of a new way.
Israel was nice to him and didn't make him wait long before disappointing him. The road map was shelved, Abbas was shoved aside, and the separation fence was born - frightening Abdullah, who could imagine hundreds of thousands of Palestinians immigrating to Jordan. The promise by Olmert to Abdullah on Thursday that he would do all he could to negotiate before acting unilaterally was received in Amman with deep skepticism at best. The differences remain, and with them are a heavy suspicion toward Olmert and a fear that Israel might make Jordan the "alternative Palestinian homeland."
Olmert promised Mubarak that he would meet with Abbas in the near future. The tension between Abbas and Hamas, and the ultimatum the former gave the latter - that it accept the prisoners' document - makes a meeting between Abbas and Olmert more vital than ever. If the referendum does not take place, Abbas needs Israeli help to show that there is a positive alternative to the tragic situation in which 3.5 million Palestinians find themselves. An effective meeting should propose a series of practical steps that would ease living conditions, and a vision of a potential political plan. That is the minimum Abbas needs to achieve his goal.
These were also Mubarak's and Abdullah's requests. Olmert nodded and scattered promises. One of the officials in the Jordanian court turned to a friend and said, "Once again the Israelis came to sell us old merchandise." And Israel indeed is holding on to the moldy merchandise that says Egypt and Jordan really don't have a choice but to sustain the occupation for it. After all, Egypt does not want terror leaking into its territory and Jordan does not want more Palestinians in its territory, so the Palestinian cage will remain locked. But the Palestinians, who are losing control, did not study this formula in school. A little more pressure and a little more hunger and anyone who can't emigrate will explode - if not in Tel Aviv then in Amman or Cairo. And then we'll see who will maintain the occupation for Israel.
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