He's a Nay-sayer

The events leading up to next Monday's planned trilateral summit at the David Citadel Hotel in Jerusalem can be likened to a detective movie with a banal plot, which thickens by means of sharp twists, but whose end remains shrouded in fog.

The events leading up to next Monday's planned trilateral summit at the David Citadel Hotel in Jerusalem can be likened to a detective movie with a banal plot, which thickens by means of sharp twists, but whose end remains shrouded in fog.

Act I: Prime Minister Ehud Olmert finds himself in a state of political bankruptcy following his failure in the Lebanon war and his plunge in the polls. The agenda he promoted upon his election - unilateral withdrawal from most of the West Bank - is buried. In his distress he discovers his neighbor, Mahmoud Abbas, the chairman of the Palestinian Authority, and offers him a deal: Let's meet and present to the world political negotiations that will serve both our interests. To tempt Abbas to come to his residence in Jerusalem and get a kiss on the cheek there, Olmert bribes him with a check for $100 million and promises to make life easier for the residents of the territories. The photo of the kiss is published around the world, but Olmert's popularity rating remains at a nadir. The public is more interested in his tiffs with the defense minister and scandals at the top.

Act II: While Olmert is preparing for the meeting with Abbas, the iron ladies, Tzipi Livni and Condoleezza Rice, are devising a ploy to use on the men. Livni wants to consolidate her standing as the country's most popular politician, one who is threatening to succeed the prime minister, and Rice is looking for a diplomatic achievement that will distance her from the failed war in Iraq. The ploy of the foreign minister and her counterpart in the State Department goes something like this: We will thaw the freeze in the political process and launch talks on the character and shape of the future Palestinian state. We will tell the left-wingers that the peace process has been revived; we will reassure the right by promising to separate "talk from concession" and say that even if an agreement is reached, nothing will be implemented before the Palestinians fight terrorism. We will explain to the strategists that the move "will strengthen the axis of the moderates" in the region and will provide Abbas with a "diplomatic horizon" that will help him in his struggle with Hamas. We will show the Europeans and the Arab leaders that America is again vigorously mediating between Israel and the Palestinians.

Act III: Olmert is sitting in his bureau with his chief of staff Yoram Turbowicz and his adviser Shalom Turjeman, his representatives in the talks with the Americans and the Palestinians. They promise him that the Rice-Livni initiative will not get off the ground, that their man in the White House, Elliot Abrams, has assured them that there is nothing to worry about. But Olmert remains uneasy. Rice visits the region in mid-January and announces that on her next visit she will convene a summit with Olmert and Abbas. The initiative to skip over the road map is starting to gain momentum. What to do? Tough messages begin to emerge from the Prime Minister's Bureau, which make clear what will not happen at the February summit: There will be no talks on the permanent settlement, no negotiations under U.S. mediation, no avoidance of the road map. Olmert invites his senior ministers to the summit, so that they will not present independent plans to Rice, and so he will come across as having the country's best interests at heart and as taking part in decisions. But that's not enough. At night Olmert dreams about an encouraging note from Ariel Sharon that he found in his desk drawer. When things get rough and the pressure mounts, his predecessor wrote him, trust the Palestinians to get you out of the jam. They will always do something idiotic that will save you.

Act IV: Abbas travels to Mecca to meet with Hamas leader Khaled Meshal. "Henceforth I am your partner," Meshal informs Abbas. The agreement contains nothing about recognizing Israel. The impression formed by an Israeli adviser who worked with several prime ministers is that Meshal is behaving like Yasser Arafat did in 1992, when he tried to extract recognition of the PLO from Yitzhak Rabin. At the time Israel insisted on boycotting the PLO and talking with a Palestinian delegation consisting of residents of the territories, headed by Haidar Abdel Shafi. But Arafat pulled the strings from afar and blocked progress in the talks. Meshal is now doing the same thing to Olmert, the adviser says. He is preventing Abbas from advancing, in an attempt to force Israel to recognize Meshal's status as the leader of the Palestinian people.

Act V: On Thursday of last week Olmert receives the report about the Mecca agreement to establish a Palestinian unity government and smells an opportunity. He sends his ambassador in Washington, Sallai Meridor, to find out from the administration whether the summit can be canceled. But the reply from Washington is terse and resolute, in the Rice manner. I am coming to the region and the summit will take place as planned on Monday, she made clear to Olmert. The Palestinian envoys who visited Rice in her bureau last Friday are apprehensive about her reaction to the Mecca accord and are surprised to find that she is not upset. Israel is promised that the Quartet will insist on the conditions it has set the Palestinian government: recognition of Israel, dissociation from terrorism and honoring all past agreements. In exchange, the Quartet's communique welcomes the scheduled summit. Analysis: Israel accepts the illegitimacy of the Abbas-Hamas government, but must continue along Rice's track.

Act VI: Following marathon conversations with the world's leaders, Olmert understand which way the international wind is blowing. He lowers his profile in terms of public criticism of the Mecca agreement, but in internal discussions explains that Abbas will have to pass the "partner test" anew. Or, in Olmert's words: "The story of the agreement is not easy or simple. If we accept the version of no recognition of Israel, contrary to the position of the Quartet, it's a new Abu Mazen [Abbas], and it's far from certain that we can hold talks with him" (from a meeting of the body responsible for coordination between the government and the Jewish Agency). Nevertheless, Olmert says, it's worth waiting and letting the international community put pressure on Abbas. There's also no reason to rile the Saudis, the brokers of the Mecca agreement, when Israel needs their support against Iran. According to a source in Jerusalem, Israeli intelligence found it difficult to provide reliable information about the Mecca agreement beyond analyzing the text that was published in the media. The evaluations (as leaked from the discussions) were confused and contradictory on the question of whether a Palestinian unity government would in fact be established.

Act VII: Olmert shapes a new posture ahead of the summit. Instead of talking about a "political horizon" and a Palestinian state, he will explain to Abbas what he has to lose by implementing the agreement with Meshal and entering a unity government: He will both lose his status as a negotiating partner and be confronted by an Israeli demand to return the abducted soldier Gilad Shalit. What do you need that for, Olmert will ask Abbas. You're better off remaining in the position of the weak moderate, who is incapable of doing anything but conduct virtual negotiations on some vague political horizon. The world's leaders join and threaten Abbas by phone that funding from international sources will not be renewed if he honors the Mecca agreement and allies himself with the Meshal gang.

Act VIII: They're getting ready for the Shabbat meal in the Prime Minister's Residence, and Olmert is wondering what Rice will tell him when they meet on Sunday, the day before the summit. In the foreign minister's home they are hanging up the suit that has just come back from the cleaners, ahead of the dinner with her U.S. counterpart on Saturday evening. At Andrews Air Force Base next to Washington, Rice boards a plane in a dark skirt and heels. Abbas is perspiring in the Muqata in Ramallah and wondering how he can please both the Americans and his new partners from Hamas.