A prelude of niceties
Ahead of Annapolis, Olmert and Abbas have agreed to disagree, while Bush is promising 'real results' Israelis and Palestinians who have met with United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in recent days and have spoken with her staff have gained the impression that she does not really know what on earth her boss wants from her. It isn't that Dr. Rice has a hearing problem. Her problem is that United States President George W. Bush has apparently not yet decided what exactly he wants to achieve at the Annapolis peace conference.
His answers depend on who he is speaking to and on the day of the week. An Arab diplomat serving in Washington, who happened upon Bush, asked him what he expected to take place at the conference planned for next month. "Oh, I promise you that it's going to be a very nice event," Bush replied. By way of contrast, Palestinian Author ity Chairman Mahmoud Abbas has been telling his buddies that he emerged thoroughly delighted from his encounter with the American president at the United Nations General Assembly meeting held at the end of September. Ahmed Qurei (Abu Ala), the head of the Palestinian peace team, reports that Bush told Abbas he was fed up and is insisting on the conference producing "real results."
There are two camps at the White House and at the State Department. The prevailing train of thought in one of the camps, led by neo-conservative Elliott Abrams, who is in charge of the National Security Council's Middle Eastern Affairs, holds that negotiations with the Palestinians on a final status solution is an idiotic idea. Members of the other camp, headed by Rice, believe the time has come to renew the peace process, but they have no idea how to go about this. The good news they have heard is that in their four one-on-one meetings, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Abbas have touched on the conflict's most sensitive issues. The bad news that has been brought to their attention is that the two leaders have agreed that the gaps between them with respect to details are too big. Abbas is not prepared to trade more than 2 or 3 percent of the West Bank and Olmert is rejecting the demand that the trades be at a ratio of 1:1. Also, they didn't even get close to reaching an agreement with respect to the question of sovereignty in Jerusalem's Old City and with respect to a symbolic recognition of the right of return.
This situation obligates the conference's initiator to choose among three possibilities: One is to convene "a nice event," despite the differences between the two sides, and to risk failure. The second is to find a good excuse to postpone the conference to some unknown date. The third is to place before the two sides a binding American document, including a timetable for negotiations on the details and an agenda for the implementation of the agreement.
Without a doubt, the American intelligence services know that "a nice event" without real results will not leave the territories in the same state of not so great / not so bad; the Gaza government has decided to suspend the violent activity until the conference. Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh and his colleagues in the Hamas leadership do not want the inhabitants of the territories to blame them for the certain failure. They prefer to give Abbas a long rope, which ends in Annapolis. Postponing the conference will also be considered a failure by Fatah to get the peace process moving again.
The Saudis are pressuring Bush to choose the third alternative. This is one of Saudi King Abdullah's conditions for Riyadh's participation in the conference. The other condition is that Syria and Lebanon be invited to Annapolis. If they want to come, they will; if not, that's also good. The senior advisers to the president's dad, former president George H. W. Bush - among them former national security advisers and retired senior ambassadors - are urging Bush Jr. to jump into the freezing waters. A similar piece of advice from an official Congressional committee headed by Bush Sr.'s secretary of state, James Baker, and Lee Hamilton, is gathering mold in a drawer. The reality of Bush, in November 2007, slipping into the old shoes left behind by Bill Clinton in December 2000, appears as graspable as the (diplomatic) horizon. However, officials in the Republican Party are worried by public opinion polls in which New York Senator Hillary Clinton does well. Bush's pals are not keen on adding another failure to their Middle Eastern collection.
In this context another possibility is cropping up: to declare the Annapolis conference "a nice event" and to announce a date in the near future for a working meeting at which the United States will be more active and less nice.
Anyone who knows Prime Minister Ehud Olmert knows that if he had thought his meetings with Abbas might culminate in a historic agreement, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni would not even know about any developments in the diplomatic track.
It is possible to learn from her appointment as head of the negotiating team that Olmert is no longer gambling on the etrog card in the legal track: He is not putting his money on being treated by the media as though he were wrapped in cotton wool to prevent bruising, like the citron used in the Sukkot rituals, as was said of his predecessor Ariel Sharon, against whom legal investigations were also pending prior to the disengagement.
Ever since Haim Ramon was extricated from that channel by the skin of his teeth, the vice premier has been trying to convince Olmert that a breakthrough in the talks with the Palestinians is his only lifeline in the sea of criminal cases threatening him.
When Olmert informed Livni on Saturday of his decision to hand her the reins of the negotiations with the Palestinians, he also knew that this cart is about to get stuck and that the press release about the new police investigations had already been sent for typing. Olmert knows that without a unilateral convergence and in the absence of a bilateral agreement, there is no chance of recycling Sharon's shriveling etrog from the glory days of the disengagement.
When there is no peace agreement on the horizon, it is hard to scare people with the threat that new elections will bring back Likud MK and former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. And who says that Kadima won't appoint itself a new leader if Olmert resigns? If Livni is worthy in his eyes of leading the fateful negotiations on the country's borders, why shouldn't she lead the country itself?
The vilifications of State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss have used up their potential for incitement against the law-enforcement authorities. Who is going to buy the spin that Attorney General Menachem Mazuz and State Prosecutor Eran Shendar are also "motivated by personal considerations"?
Therefore it is necessary to feed the "leftist" media with something new, different and seductive. This something is called "governmental stability." Do you want a new prime minister every year? You don't change a finance minister and an economic policy like socks either. Even if party poopers like Labor MK Ophir Pines-Paz succeed in plucking Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, Isaac Herzog and Yuli Tamir from their government armchairs, others will be found who will see to governmental stability.
The right has no problem with sitting in a government that will approve the renewal of construction at the Mughrabi Gate in the midst of negotiations that inter alia are dealing with the question of the Old City of Jerusalem. Had it not been for the report in Haaretz, which aroused Minister of Science, Culture and Sport Raleb Majadele to question the decision, the excavators would have gone up to the Temple Mount yesterday. The reverberations of the riots would have reached Rice's hotel room in Jerusalem.
Together with the expropriation of hundreds of dunams of land near Ma'aleh Adumim in the West Bank, this would have finally clanged shut the gates of Annapolis and opened the gates of the government to Likud and the National Union-National Religious Party. Minister of Strategic Affairs Avigdor Lieberman has already paved the way for them.
Nothing new on the Judea front
The settlers are ostensibly angry at Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who has stopped negotiating with them about koshering the illegal outposts and has supposedly ordered a freeze on construction in the Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Yet this "anger" hides great rejoicing.
The settler leaders, who are plugged in to the Defense Minister's Bureau by means of their neighbor, MK Otniel Schneller of Kadima, know that there is no intention of hanging them out to dry.
The document Vice Premier Haim Ramon is about to bring for approval to the ministerial committee for the implementation of Talia Sasson's report on the illegal outposts contains a recommendation to saturate the settlements. This document has infuriated Sasson.
In a detailed letter she sent to Ramon last week, she argues that the document, which was prepared by Deputy Attorney General Malkiel Blass, not only does not correct the existing distortions in the procedure for approving settlements, which her March 2005 report pointed out; the former senior attorney in that same office warns that adopting those recommendations will wantonly abandon the field to the settlers.
Ramon's bureau and Sasson have refused to release the material for public discussion. However, even the little that has become known to Haaretz indicates a far-reaching plan by Olmert and his partners in Kadima to legitimize a large number of the illegal outposts and to enable the establishment of new outposts. Olmert has already informed Rice that the freeze on settlements does not include additions to the built-up area in the existing settlements.
This contradicts the commitment she was given by adviser Dov Weissglas in April 2004, that there will be no deviations from the outermost building line in each settlement.
The new proposal for a decision, which will be brought before the committee after the Annapolis conference, allows for the expansion of the existing settlements under the rubric of "new neighborhoods that are not attached to the edges of existing settlements." In order to establish a new settlement near Ofra, a decision by the Binyamin regional council will suffice.
The authority to approve the decision will be transferred from the defense minister to the ministerial committee on settlement matters, on which Kadima and Yisrael Beiteinu have a majority, even if Ben-Eliezer bothers to come to the meetings. People who know Sasson are promising that she will not bite her tongue when the committee makes a mockery of her work.
And in the meantime there is nothing new in the land of the settlers. On the eve of the start of the olive harvest season, the thugs are again harassing the Palestinian grove owners.
Human rights activists yesterday told the commander of the Samara Brigade about the inhabitants of the (new!) outpost of Arhivi B, who have taken over an olive grove in the area of Alon Moreh, scared away the owners and stolen the ripe fruit.
Yoel Marshak, the coordinator of the United Kibbutz Movement's Special Assignments Division, which for several years has been helping Palestinians cope with their violent neighbors, notes that the Israel Defense Forces is the sovereign in the territory and he promises that he will not let up until the army enforces the law there.