The good news is that something is stirring in the peace process. For the first time in seven years an Israeli prime minister declares that there are Palestinians to talk to - namely Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayad.
The government in Jerusalem is producing peace initiatives. Ehud Olmert has persuaded Amos Oz, the Zionist left wing's spiritual mentor, that he intends to pull out of the territories. The two sides meet and exchange gestures. Tony Blair is hanging around. The American administration is organizing a peace conference in the autumn.
The bad news is that the initiatives and plans are based on an imaginary reality and on establishing a make-believe Palestinian state. A PlayStation Palestine.
The basic assumption is that Abbas and Fayad are too weak and will not be able to impose security and order in the West Bank. Or, as a senior Israeli official put it, they're pleasant and moderate, but hold pens, not guns, in their hands. The Gaza Strip has fallen into Hamas' hands and it is not clear when and how it will become part of the Fatah state that is supposed to rise in the West Bank.
For Israel, the central problem is the Qassam fire. Israel will not tolerate having its population and airport within Palestinian rocket range. Defense Minister Ehud Barak recently told officials he met that Israel would not be able to relinquish its security control over the West Bank, at least until it obtains the means of intercepting short-range rockets.
Such a project would take three to five years. Barak has no doubt that it is the IDF's presence on the mountains overlooking Ben-Gurion Airport that is preventing fire on it, rather than any self-restraint on the part of Palestinian terror organizations.
Let's face reality: In the absence of an effective Palestinian security force and an Israeli Qassam-interception system there can be no significant pullout from the West Bank and handing over territory to a Palestinian state.
Any symbolic withdrawal from outposts or isolated settlements is unlikely. The army will plead it is busy training for a possible war in the north and has no time to waste on clashes with settlers. Defense officials will warn against undermining morale, especially that of the religious officers prominent in key ground combat units.
The evacuation proposals made by Vice Premier Haim Ramon, as head of the ministerial committee for outposts, will be blocked by his rival Barak, who will dismiss them as political harassment.
In these circumstances, the gap between the diplomatic discourse and reality widens. Talking about peace is better than wrangling, of course. But such talk could create exaggerated expectations on the Palestinian side, whose shattering will lead again to disappointment and the renewal of the conflict. Olmert understands this and is trying to bridge the gap with an agreement of principles, subject to political ratification on both sides. This would make it possible to gain time and hope things improve in the meantime.
There is another way to translate good intentions into real changes - remove some of the restrictions on Palestinian freedom of movement in the West Bank. No aspect of the occupation is more cruel and painful, and there is no greater obstacle to reviving the Palestinian economy and improving everyday life. What is the point of suggesting meetings of businessmen from both sides, as Blair did, when West Bank roads are blocked? Exchanging business cards with Nochi Dankner and Yitzhak Tshuva will contribute nothing to merchants and contractors from Nablus and Hebron, who wish to visit one another.
The "roadblock test" is a good indication for the seriousness of Israel's intentions and for Olmert's ability to make a change in the existing reality. So far the performance has been poor: more than a month ago the prime minister instructed the army to remove roadblocks and nothing happened. The instruction is stuck in the depth of military bureaucracy, which is very busy with "staff work." The army and Shin Bet security service see the roadblocks as a vital tool against terror and will not give them up. Barak favors alleviations, but has not had time yet to visit the Central Command and examine things thoroughly.
The gloomy conclusion from all of this is that the Israeli partner is also weak, and in the absence of a leadership that can force its policy on the operative level, the peace process will continue to be conducted like a virtual exercise in diplomatic conferences and dinners.
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