If a Soldier Is Kidnapped, We'll Talk

The problem is not who has been elected to the Palestinian institutions; it is the Israeli government's excuses to delay peace talks.

It is hard not to cry for joy: Mahmoud Abbas has been elected head of Fatah once again. And oh, here are more familiar faces: Jibril Rajoub, Mohammed Dahlan, Saeb Erekat, Tawfik Tirawi. What a relief. Finally we have a new generation of Palestinian leaders with whom you can do business. Excitement in Israel was so great that some proposed releasing Marwan Barghouti from jail in honor of his election. Others said the new Fatah platform thwarts any chance for progress.

However, the election of the Fatah Central Committee has no connection to the peace process. Fatah leaders were talking about a two-state solution as far back as the 1980s. Abu Iyad said two years before his 1991 assassination by Israel, "There will be no peace without a two-state solution." Yasser Arafat, not Mahmoud Abbas, was the one who signed the Oslo Accords. Abbas conducted intensive negotiations with Israel even before he knew he would be reelected to lead Fatah, and the familiar faces like Rajoub, Nabil Sha'ath or Erekat did not need Central Committee membership to conduct talks. Even Ahmed Qureia, who was not elected to the Central Committee this time, can continue talks with Israel if Abbas asks him to. Let's see Israel say it won't speak to him merely because he failed to be elected to the Central Committee.

The problem is not who has been elected to the Palestinian institutions; after all, these individuals already have said they are prepared to continue negotiations at any time. The problem is the Israeli government's excuses to delay peace talks. Releasing Barghouti won't produce any miracles, and Fatah's platform will not be the pitfall. After all, Israel signed a peace agreement with the PLO before it changed its covenant, and did not see this covenant as a reason to abrogate the agreement. That is because when there is willingness and determination, and particularly when necessity dictates matters, words are no obstacle.

The clearest proof of this lies in other talks Israel is conducting - which produce daily, if not hourly, headlines - for the release of kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit. We no longer need to hide behind vague formulations. These are negotiations between Israel and Hamas, whether or not an intermediary is involved. Hamas has neither a central committee nor a national council. It has no political assets to offer Israel. Even if it did, it would not give them up.

Israel, for its part, is not even seeking recognition from Hamas before agreeing to a swap for Shalit; neither is it scrutinizing Hamas' covenant or leadership to decide whether to conduct talks. That is because Hamas has something the Israeli public wants very badly. Bringing home Shalit - aside from bringing great joy, alongside the sadness over his long period in captivity - would be a boastable achievement for the prime minister. He can embrace Shalit and be photographed with him. In short, it would be a tangible asset.

In contrast to Shalit, the peace process is not perceived as an essential or sustainable asset. At best, it is a punishment being meted out by the American administration. The peace process is not a kidnapped soldier whose life is at risk with every passing day. And if talks with Hamas have been dragging on for three years already, the peace process can certainly wait.

True, there is a huge difference between talks over one kidnapped soldier and peace talks. In negotiating for the release of a soldier, it does not matter who the partner is; it could be the devil himself. Only the price matters. It is a one-time deal, as bitter a pill as it may be. In the peace process the partner is more important than the price. After all, this is the partner that we will have to live with "in peace" for as long as possible so that peace may become a tangible asset.

The problem is that Israel is the one treating the peace process as if it were over the release of one soldier. As far as Israel is concerned, only the price matters; the partner does not. Fatah's new Central Committee can stop jumping and waving its arms; no one will notice. It has not kidnapped a soldier; it is offering only negotiations.