Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is scheduled to host Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas at his sukkah in Jerusalem tomorrow. Next month, senior representatives from both sides are expected to participate in a conference at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. The frequency with which Olmert and Abbas meet and their seriousness in preparing for the meeting in the United States are raising expectations of significant progress in negotiations. However, the degree to which these expectations correspond to reality is still unknown.
The idea for an international conference, with the participation of Arab states, world powers and organizations such as the United Nations, is not new - not in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict nor to the current administration in Washington. President George Bush had wanted this kind of conference five years ago, following Operation Defensive Shield, the subsequent Saudi initiative, the Beirut summit of the Arab League and the two-state (Israel and Palestine) speech of June 2002. The idea was revived with Abbas in place of Yasser Arafat, but the weakness of the Palestinian leader is making it difficult to bridge the gap in requests between the two sides. This is no less a problem than Arafat's power had been in doing the same.
During his trip to the U.S. last week, to participate in the United Nations General Assembly and meet with Bush, Abbas' public stance hardenned. He is demanding that Israel revert fully to the 1967 borders, without the minor modifications that are included specifically in the formula of "land for peace" found in UN Resolution 242, or in the Clinton framework of 2000. Bush himself suggested in 2004 that he will not insist on Israel's full return to the Green Line. Abbas also adopted a very tough stance on the issue of refugees.
This may be a tactical stiffening of positions, and its softening as the summit approaches or during the conference will credit Bush as an effective negotiator, capable of gaining concessions. Moreover, Israel's position is not clear, nor is it clear among the senior ministers - who contradict each other - who is actually authorized to voice it.
The problem is that a toughening in Palestinian positions is aimed at scoring points with Palestinian public opinion and Arab states, which are supposed to back Abbas on his way to the summit. Abbas would like to bypass the leadership of Hamas and gain the support of the Palestinian public, however the Palestinians apparently support the Hamas policy, even though they are not pleased with the hardship through which the group is leading them in the Gaza Strip. Even the key states, like Saudi Arabia, may demand that Abbas not moderate his position, in return for their seal of approval on the summit.
In recent months Rice and Quartet envoy Tony Blair have hinted that while Olmert and Abbas continue to debate over the structure of the Palestinian entity that has still not taken form, it is best to work and give it substance. They are referring to the administrative and economic institutions of governance. Israel can contribute to this effort by spurring economic activity in the Palestinian Authority, in part by removing road blocks, and bolster Abbas by being generous and releasing more prisoners. However, in spite of the importance of these measures, if there is no significant softening in the positions of the leaders to the point where Bush will be able to bridge their differences at Annapolis, the whole effort may break down - heaven forbid - into the terrorist attacks the enemies of an agreement are planning.
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