A Ritual Move in a Virtual Process

The main winner in the wake of this state of crisis is Marwan Barghouti. After the failure of the November conference, Barghouti will have additional supporters.

The Great Wall of China in exchange for the moon. That could be a good deal, in which both sides would receive a prominent and prestigious asset. One can see Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert shaking hands, embracing (Olmert embraces more), smiling (Abbas smiles less) and ceremoniously signing a document of principles, a statement of intentions and a scout's oath to exchange between themselves what isn't theirs and what they don't have the power to concede.

The present diplomatic frenzy that is supposed to lead within two months to a "meeting" (a term that embodies modest expectations) or an ambitious "summit," does not reflect gradual but genuine progress, but rather a virtual process. Within it, ritual moves empty of content are being registered and photographed.

The choreography is not only in the diplomatic arena, but in the political arena as well, such as the decision last week by Olmert's government to respond to the firing of Qassam rockets by interfering with the supply of electricity to the Gaza Strip. That is not the exact wording of the decision, but the popular impression that was meant to hover over it, as a momentary means of repelling public pressure.

What was decided was only to think about meeting to discuss carrying out a warning, which in advance is known to be of dubious legality and of negative utility to Israel. And in fact, about 10 rockets that have been fired at the Negev since then did not send a single finger belonging to an outspoken minister to the power switch.

The main promoter of the November meeting is U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. The Bush administration has transferred the focus of American policy from Europe to the Middle East, and it is preoccupied with four interrelated issues: Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine. In all four of them, the administration wants to demonstrate an immediately visible achievement, but one that is also durable and will last after Bush is finished. Bringing down Saddam Hussein and taking the Syrian army out of Lebanon were fragile successes. The Iranian issue will be decided in the coming year.

Rice is eager to provide the president with a positive addition to the 2007 annual report. The likely candidates are the two governments in the Israel-Palestine arena. Both are too weak to refuse an American dictate. They are also too weak to fill the talks with content, but that problem will wait for another time, or another year.

Bush and Rice have tough demands. They call Olmert, and he reports. The same is true of Abbas, of course. With his honesty and in his willingness to try to find a realistic solution, Abbas is ostensibly a refreshing change when compared with Yasser Arafat. In fact, Abbas is a continuation of Arafat in his exploitation of the power of weakness.

The more Abbas is weakened, the more Rice is willing to give him, at Israel's expense, so he won't get lost entirely. The result is a shelving of the staged approach at the heart of the "road map," and an agreement to Abbas' pleas to ignore the milestones and to skip verbally to the third and last stage.

The road map is actually a game of truth or consequences: Each side in its turn will reveal its position and will carry out moves on the ground to advance the bargaining toward its final aim (a fight against terror, evacuation of the settlements). Abbas asked for and received concessions for medical reasons. He is still a soldier in the army of peace, but he serves close to home and is exempt from bearing arms, carrying heavy loads and, in general, from efforts that are liable to exhaust him.

Therefore they are talking once again about "a vision" and "a horizon" and "core issues." And the innocent term "path," which is liable to recall the outmoded road map, has been replaced by "route," meaning the successful route to establishing a Palestinian state.

It would be encouraging, were it not for the dangerous gap between the great expectations and the helplessness of Abbas and of his prime minister, Salam Fayad, a good guy and a talented economist, a combination of Stanley Fischer and Avishai Braverman; in other words, not a national leader for a crucial period.

The main winner in the wake of this state of crisis is Marwan Barghouti. Increasing whispers are being heard in Olmert's government in favor of his release. That, for example, is the viewpoint of two of the security-oriented members of the Labor Party who are close to Defense Minister Ehud Barak: Binyamin Ben Eliezer and Matan Vilnai. After the failure of the November conference, Barghouti will have additional supporters.