COPENHAGEN - Yasser Abed Rabbo is a Palestinian of considerable eminence: Minister of Information and Culture in the Palestinian Authority, he can leave his house during a closure, fly abroad and even take off from Ben-Gurion Airport (prohibited for Palestinians). Last Tuesday, Abed Rabbo was supposed to fly to a UN-sponsored conference in Copenhagen. Between leaving home in Ramallah and arriving in Denmark, he underwent more than an entire day of non-stop humiliation such as few ministers from anywhere else could experience.
A Danish Embassy car and driver had to pluck him from his house in closure-land. At the airport, a policeman demanded an airport entry permit and anyone without one was instructed to leave the airport precincts forthwith. Only Danish Embassy intervention enabled Abed Rabbo to fly. Things got even messier in transit, at Frankfurt. Abed Rabbo had an entry permit for Denmark, but not for Germany. Promises that the eminent passenger would promptly board his plane didn't help, nor did the fact that he's a prominent minister whose visage appears almost nightly on television screens worldwide, nor did entreaties that he be sent onward to some other country; Abed Rabbo was on the verge of being deported on the first plane back to Tel Aviv.
The German border police didn't find Palestine on its list of the world's countries nor did Ramallah appear on its computers. The minister stood there, helpless, in the office of the police until someone suggested he contact the PLO representative in Germany, Abdullah Faranji. The matter was taken care of, but Abed Rabbo had missed his flight to Denmark and had to stay overnight at the airport.
Abed Rabbo's saga is wonderfully indicative of the situation of the Palestinian Authority: paralyzed and helpless. Even the Europeans have turned their backs. Could Israel do any better than this? Highly doubtful. But the story didn't cast a pall on the discussions at the UN conclave in Copenhagen debating the conflict in the Middle East: With the famous statue of the little mermaid through the window, even the Middle East looks better. It's all empty magic, however, just like the feeling in recent weeks about renewed international political momentum.
From reports of the successful deliberations of the Quartet in New York to the lesser event in Copenhagen, all these discussions are out of touch with the severe realities on the ground: two suicide bombings in Israel while they talked peace in Denmark, and a million Palestinian residents still caged under closure, even after the Quartet had had its say. The overt international contacts have as yet had no impact on the negotiations, on the closure, on the suicide bombings. With the PA completely paralyzed in Ramallah, with the government of Israel believing only in force and the American administration having adopted the path recommended by the government of Israel - the situation, like a cart sunk over its axles in a pool of blood, is not going anywhere at all just now.
The conference in Denmark was attended by official representatives from the Palestinian Authority and the Arab League, joined by participants from Jordan, Egypt, Morocco and elsewhere. Officially, Israel boycotted the conference, which dates back to anti-Israel voting in the UN more than a decade ago. In contrast to the Arab speakers, mostly fluent and impressive, there were only a few Israelis present, including Yossi Beilin and Ron Pundak. This in and of itself was sad - Israel, self-proclaimed seeker of peace, should participate in any and every gathering that promotes a dialogue.
But now the dialogue season has ended, and from this standpoint, the relations between Israel and the Palestinians have regressed at least ten years. Israel is once again repulsing attempts at contact. Taher Masri, a former prime minister of Jordan, thus found it easy to attack Israel for having destroyed bridges built over ten years of bilateral dialogue. The PLO representative in London, Affif Safiah, was nostalgic for someone like Nahum Goldmann and remarked that territories conquered in six days could be withdrawn from at the same speed.
UN Middle East representative Terje Larsen gave a thoughtful and remarkably even-handed speech, especially scathing in its attacks on suicide bombings, but also saying that nothing had ever been proven as to the existence of corruption in the Palestinian Authority. Ever the optimist, Larsen said that he is encouraged that most Israelis now understand that the solution is in the creation of a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders. Henry Siegman from the Council on Foreign Relations in New York said that Israelis need a Palestinian state to assure the continued existence of the Jewish state, more than the Palestinians need it to assure their own continued existence. Andre Azoulay, an adviser to the King of Morocco, and Prof. Stephen Cohen of the United States, two veteran and dedicated peace activists, sounded more depressed and despairing than ever before, at a time when Beilin seemed once again hopeful.
Abed Rabbo said the suicide bombings hurt Palestinian interests because they sanctify whatever Sharon does; Pundak said Arafat is an obstacle to peace, but Sharon even more so, and that the key to replacing the latter is in Palestinian hands: they must stop the terror attacks and relinquish the right of return, to enable the election of a different leadership in Jerusalem.
When the conference ended two days ago, Safiah went off to the Peace Festival in Crete and Masri headed for a vacation in Nice and the music festival in Salzburg, as he does every year. Abed Rabbo went home, via Germany, to the closure in Ramallah.
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