Border Control / Ramallah Fiddles, Gaza Burns

Escapism and skepticism push hope for change off the West Bank agenda.

RAMALLAH - Four armed policemen in pressed blue and green camouflage uniforms sat in a command car, looking down the main street from the Beit El checkpoint to the center of town. It was 6 P.M. The last construction workers came down from the scaffolding around the high-rise buildings popping up on every corner in downtown Ramallah. There was not a single living soul in the lobby of the shiny stone building housing the Foreign Ministry, which Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas has placed in the hands of his prime minister, Salam Fayad. Traffic in the commercial district was light, only a few horns honked, and the drivers, as usual, passed each other wildly, ignoring traffic lights.

The Darna Restaurant is hidden in a side alley. This is where the who's who meet - politicians, journalists, merchants and the few people of means. A cup of coffee costs 10 shekels - the daily income of the average family on the adjacent street.

A waiter arranged narghiles, and his colleague showed an elegantly dressed family to a table in the restaurant's spacious courtyard.

Dr. Mustafa Barghouti, who helped form the alliance between Fatah and Hamas, and was rewarded with a brief term as information minister in Ismail Haniyeh's government, politely shook hands with Yasser Abed Rabbo, a member of Fayad's tiny party. Azzam al-Ahmad, the Fatah faction head in the Palestinian parliament, which has been emptied of content and members, also came over to offer a modest welcome. Everyone knew each other. One used to be an important man and now doesn't have even a driver. Another was an ally yesterday and a bitter foe today.

Darna is not the only place of its kind. Escapism and skepticism are pushing politics and hope for change off the agenda. Not long ago, a fitness club opened in Ramallah, rivaling those in North Tel Aviv. Every machine has a plasma screen. The spacious room is surrounded by large glass windows that look out on the red roofs of Psagot, which spills down from above.

A Palestinian acquaintance said the fitness club was asking NIS 450 for a monthly membership. The owner says he knows this is no small sum, but believes the break with Gaza and the renewed international donations will improve the cash flow in the West Bank capital. He is hoping this money will bring him Darna's customers, looking to lose a few excess pounds put on at the restaurant.

Abed Rabbo and Al-Ahmad entered the improvised studio that Al Hora television officials set up on the restaurant's second floor. Al Hora ("The free") was set up three years ago by the American administration, in response to Al Jazeera and Al-Arabiya. It broadcasts via satellite to 22 countries in the Middle East, in an attempt to market U.S. President George W. Bush's democratization policy. Its success in penetrating broad swaths of the Arab public and cracking the hostility is disputed. The staff has not set foot in the Gaza Strip.

The young producer, Adam Nixon, had invited the two to discuss the future of the territories and the peace process. No Hamas representative was invited to take part in the "round table." Throughout the entire, long discussion, the possibility of a Hamas-Fatah reconciliation was not mentioned, not even in a veiled reference. Everyone knows Abbas is refusing to forgive Hamas for the plot to assassinate him on the eve of the Gaza takeover.

Opinions are divided as to when forgiveness could come. Abbas' associates, including Abed Rabbo and Saeb Erakat, believe the break between the West Bank and Gaza, and Fatah and Hamas, should end with Hamas' men crawling into the rival camp. They believe change can come only from the bottom, from the Gaza public, when it gets fed up with the religious zealots' frenzy and with eating only pita and weeds. They say a breakthrough in negotiations with Israel over the agreement of principles can increase grassroots pressure on the Hamas government and hasten its fall.

Fayad's camp, however, is leaving a door open for the Hamas leadership. The prime minister, who has a doctorate in economics, has his ear attuned to the sound of money coming from Saudi Arabia. Since the dismantling of the unity government, the tones from Riyadh have been less pleasant. King Abdullah sees the failure of the Mecca Agreement as a personal and religious problem. He argues that violating the agreement signed in Islam's holiest city is a desecration of the Koran. Nothing less.

Two weeks ago, Abdullah and Abbas were in Amman at the same time, but the king pointedly refused to see the Palestinian leader. He announced that not even a single dollar would reach Ramallah, or Gaza, until Abbas and Haniyeh restored his and the Mecca Agreement's dignity. Abbas agreed that any understanding reached with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert would be brought to the king for approval, and would be in the spirit of the Arab peace initiative, which was reaffirmed in Riyadh this year.

A man seated at an adjacent table, who said he was a Gazan, joined the conversation. He said Hamas is not content to block wedding celebrations in catering halls and hotels, and also sends its bearded youth to wreck modest wedding celebrations in tents set up by simple folk in their yards. The man went on to describe how a criminal was released from Gaza prison on the condition that he kill his mother and two sisters, who sinned with licentiousness - adding three more victims to the double-digit list of women murdered in Gaza since Hamas took over in mid-June.

Sooner or later, Hamas will be overcome by the loss of personal and economic security in Gaza, he said, and Israel can make it happen sooner. He suggested opening the Erez crossing only to laborers not associated with the Islamic movement, and transferring the taxes deducted from their salaries to the Ramallah government. These are the most effective answers to the benefits Hamas gives its people, such as free tuition, he said.

In most political and professional circles in Israel, Gaza is considered a lost cause. In Jerusalem, they believe that regardless of the negotiations with Abbas, Hamas will not give up control over Gaza. If Abbas asks the Palestinian people to support the agreement of principles with Israel, Hamas will not allow a single ballot box to enter Gaza, they say.

Olmert and Abbas found a shared language on all matters relating to Hamas. Their talks are on improving the situation of West Bank residents only. Since the Gazans will not expel Hamas from their midst, they are not partners to anything.

Even Shimon Peres' peace plan relates to Gaza and the West Bank differently. Peres has not completely gotten away from the Jordanian option. The president suggests solving the Gaza problem in better times, and enlisting the Jordanians in a broad effort to rebuild the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Peres submitted his plan to Olmert around the time when he entered the President's Residence, hoping the prime minister would drop his cavalier attitude and take the plan seriously. However, Olmert offered no surprises. After the main points of the document were leaked to the press, Olmert told Peres that this was not the time to dismantle mines like Jerusalem and the refugees. Even the prime minister's good friend, Vice Premier Haim Ramon, has been unable to convince him to appoint a new "peace administration" - with himself at the head.

The concept of such an administration is not so new. It has been credited to Ehud Barak for more than seven years. As prime minister and defense minister, Barak placed a senior officer (Col. Shaul Arieli) at the head of the administration in order to stress the importance of the security aspects of the arrangement with the Palestinians. Olmert knows that appointing Ramon as head of the administration is a recipe for war with Barak, and would strengthen the ties between the defense minister and the foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, who is also not a big fan of the Olmert-Ramon duo.

On the other hand, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will be back here in a few days, and she will ask what Olmert intends to do to promote Bush's international conference scheduled for the fall. Washington is concerned that if the new initiative fails, it will pull the rug out from under a limping Fatah, pushing the West Bank into Hamas' arms. In order to prevent this, the Americans are asking Israel to present Abbas with an outline for a permanent agreement, not like a transparent attempt to recycle obsolete agreements.