A rather old, white-haired, slightly stooped man stands like a fortified wall against the murky, extremist wave flooding the Middle East. American officials joked at his expense this week - "Maybe we could add vitamins and iron to the aid we're giving him?," one suggested. The joke was directed at Mahmoud Abbas, but also at the official's own employer, an administration that is piling a comprehensive strategy onto the weary shoulders of the defeated and exhausted chairman of the Palestinian Authority.
On the eve of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's arrival in Washington, the Americans were hearing a new tune from the Fatah leadership in Ramallah. "He's changed," a close associate of the chairman said. "He has a determination that I haven't seen before," explained another. State Department officials chose to believe them, mainly because they had no choice. President George W. Bush kept his doubts for his one-on-one conversation with Olmert. For the cameras, he had nothing but the highest praise for Ramallah. "A good fellow," Bush called the prime minister of the PA's emergency government, Salam Fayad. The president called Abbas "the president of all the Palestinians," and Olmert echoed his praise. This formula for acknowledging Abbas' official rule of the PA was agreed upon during the preparatory talks. Otherwise, Bush would not have bothered repeating it three times.
The U.S. security coordinator for the Palestinians, Lieutenant General Keith Dayton, who is in charge of strengthening Abbas' security forces, came to Washington a few weeks ago with a positive assessment of the consolidation of the presidential guard and the Fatah forces subordinate to Abbas. He claimed they were holding their own in the battles against Hamas, and to skeptics he suggested the "telephone test." "Phone the Karni crossing," Dayton said. "If a Fatah man answers the phone, that's a sign that Fatah has won the battle."
This week the phone call was unnecessary. A U.S. official admitted in a brief conversation that "the Hamas takeover of Gaza was not a positive development." His statement was an exception to the rule, however. Most of the time the Israelis and the Americans implied that this was the best of all possible worlds, using terms like "an opportunity" and "a better future." There was a certain degree of pretending, but their words also reflected a genuine mood. The new situation has simply introduced a degree of clarity into an unclear situation. "It has given us something to do, something to work with," the official said. It's easier when the world is divided into good guys and bad guys.
Olmert is not an ideologue: He sees his role as tending to the day-to-day administration of the country and the handling of problems, and is less interested in changing the face of the Middle East and Arab-Muslim society. His short trip abroad demonstrated once again that in Israel nothing moves without the prime minister. Only after his return was a way found to rescue the Fatah members who were stuck at the Erez Crossing.
Blair House. Regards from Winograd
In a press briefing at Blair House after his meeting with Bush, Olmert proved that he has taken on the lessons of the Winograd interim report. The committee criticized him for the detailed goals he had announced at the outset of the Second Lebanon War, which were unattainable. The collapse of his West Bank convergence plan taught him that it is easy to make declarations and hard to carry them out. The result is that Olmert is now unwilling to commit himself publicly to anything.
The frustrated journalists try to squeeze a headline out of what Olmert did not say. For example: "The prisoners are always on the agenda, and it is clear that Abu Mazen [Abbas] is not responsible for Gilad Shalit." What does this mean? Does it mean that he will release Palestinian prisoners to Abbas without waiting for the return of the abducted Israeli soldier? And what about Marwan Barghouti? "We are not dealing at the moment with any particular prisoner." Such vague statements leave Olmert freedom of movement, without making any promises.
Even Olmert's promise to release the Palestinian tax money that is frozen in Israel, and to submit the issue to the cabinet on Sunday is hedged by "there's a difference between the decision and the release, which requires a suitable mechanism for transferring the money." How much Palestinian money is in the treasury?, one reporter asked. Olmert refused to answer. We'll see, we'll check. But you're also the finance minister, they reminded him, and he stood firm. Noncommittal. It's hard to believe that Olmert, who can cite all the soccer results for the past several decades and is an expert on every record and document, does not know how much Palestinian money is deposited in the treasury, up to the last cent plus interest. But he will not be caught in a statement that could be used against him afterwards, if he errs by a few shekels in either direction.
The State Department. Hope
During the Bush-Olmert meeting, the Americans described their thorough examination of the Palestinian constitution to determine whether it allows for the removal of the Hamas government and its replacement by the Fatah emergency government. To the Israelis, who are dismissive of the fine points of Palestinian law, it seemed strange: "The Americans are going too far in judging our conflict in their own terms," an Olmert aide said.
Washington wants to demonstrate consistency and loyalty to principles, however. Its decision to extend wholehearted support to the emergency government does not make life easier for the State Department's public relations people. If they talk about democracy, they will be reminded that they did everything possible to neutralize the Hamas victory in the elections. If they speak of peace, they will be accused of colluding with the Israelis to dictate the nature of the Palestinian leadership. When they try to convince the Arabs of the honesty of their intentions, the Americans proceed cautiously: How can they explain their position to the Arabs without harming Israel?
Israel is aware of the difficulty of this juggling act; its close relations with Washington make it possible to hear about them first-hand. Two weeks ago Aviv Shir-On, the Foreign Ministry's deputy director general for media and public affairs, met with Karen Hughes, undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, who is very close to Bush. At another recent meeting, a seasoned U.S. official told a senior Israeli official, almost apologetically, about a not particularly problematic statement he had made in an interview to an Arab network: "You know how it is, you have to maneuver so that everyone will understand what we mean," he explained.
In the face of this difficulty, Bush and Olmert conducted the most effective propaganda show possible under the present circumstances. Olmert looked as though he wanted a Palestinian state even more than the Palestinians themselves, do and Bush appeared to believe in the two-state vision even more than the Israelis and the Palestinians. But in conversations within the U.S. and Israel this week, we heard doubts that go beyond questions of timing to those of substance: Is the idea of an independent Palestinian state still valid?
Bush committed himself to this idea in his 2002 speech. Several senior and conservative members of his administration still believe the speech was a superfluous mistake, a caprice that is costing the U.S. an effort to achieve an impossible goal. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is even more committed than Bush, thanks to her identification with the bitter fate of the Palestinians and her role as the ear of the administration, open to the complaints of Arab leaders. At the presidential luncheon with Olmert, Rice played the "bad cop," speaking about the importance of aiding Abbas and the need to give hope to "the young Palestinian boy, so that he won't want to commit suicide." Olmert responded with a long monologue about the terror attacks he had experienced in Jerusalem. "That is the price of our mistakes vis-a-vis the Palestinians," he said.
But for the professionals, the analysts and the assessors, the events in Gaza afford a new window of opportunity to deal with scenarios that in ordinary times cannot even be mentioned. Words such as "confederation," to describe a possible relationship between a West Bank Palestine and Jordan, or even "autonomy," enjoying the trappings of nationalism without independence, are again being whispered over the water cooler. They can be viewed as part of the search for a solution, but also as a whip being held over the head of the hesitant Abbas: The Bush administration is committed to the Bush vision, but the next administration could choose another path.
Capitol Hill. An envoy
Senator Diane Feinstein of California has correct, even good relations with the State of Israel. But she has criticism of it as well. She is Jewish and liberal and would prefer a more conciliatory policy on the part of Israel. In any case, she and several Senate colleagues, including Democrats such as Christopher Dodd (Connecticut) and Republicans such as Richard Lugar (Indiana) and Chuck Hagel (Nebraska) have introduced a resolution reaffirming the Senate's commitment to a two-state resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Lobbying organizations identified with the Jewish left are preparing to support it. The recent events in Gaza have complicated the matter somewhat, and even the sponsors of the resolution realize that it may need to be updated.
The resolution requires no action on the part of the administration. Its value is as a declaration of principles. Nevertheless, it places an interesting subject on the agenda: The president must "consider appointing a Special Envoy for Middle East Peace," the resolution states. This is a diplomatic tool that has become a cliche, an envoy in the guise of a messiah. A senior Israeli diplomatic source suggested this week that "any Democratic administration that is elected in 2008 will appoint a special envoy for the peace process. It has become such an accepted slogan in the party that no Democratic president will be able to avoid it." It is certainly possible that even a Republican administration will choose to appoint such an envoy, if only to head off criticism about the lack of one. Israel will have to welcome this personage warmly.
Washington officials are skeptical. Their routine response is a polite request to spell out "the list of the achievements of the previous envoys." If any envoys have succeeded in their mission, it has escaped the notice of the Bush administration. "How could an envoy prevent the Hamas takeover of Gaza?" one asked this week, adding a new element to the criticism.
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