Border Control / The Annapolis Circus

With all due respect for Strategic Affairs Minister Avigdor Lieberman, a settler, and Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Eli Yishai, a rabbi, forces many times stronger than them will transform Annapolis from the launching pad for an Israeli-Palestinian declaration of principles into "merely a support parley that will set the process in motion," as Prime Minister Ehud Olmert put it at the Sunday cabinet meeting.

Behind the civilian front to thwart the negotiations on a permanent status agreement lurks a military home front that is very knowledgeable about assassinations. It stretches from the bureau of Amos Gilad, the coordinator of government activities in the territories, who represents his current minister on the negotiating team with the Palestinians, all the way to the headquarters of the current Samaria Brigade commander. One is erecting barriers on the road to a meaningful joint declaration, and the other is erecting barriers on the road to rehabilitating Palestinian grassroots support for the remnants of Oslo.

The defense lobby is leaving no room for doubt. Intelligence community position papers (including some written at the behest of the Foreign Ministry) and the minutes of internal discussions all state that there is no chance of arriving at a permanent status agreement with the Palestinians in the foreseeable future. They derisively call the government of Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas "the Ramallah government." Compared to the titles the military officers are bestowing on his security organizations, this nickname sounds almost like a compliment.

The prevailing opinion is that Abbas has good intentions, and his prime minister, Salam Fayyad, is an honest fellow, but most regrettably, the pair is too weak. These sources say that even if the negotiators can find a formula the Fatah government will agree to sign, it will not be capable of keeping its commitments: It will not be able to impose the agreement on Hamas in the West Bank, never mind the Gaza Strip. In short, they argue that there is no partner for a two-state solution.

This being the case, they warn, it is imperative not to enter the minefield of talks on a permanent status agreement. In the worst case, the weakness of the Palestinian leadership will force it to be inflexible, and the talks will blow up before Israel withdraws from the West Bank. In an even worse case, the Qassams will land on Kfar Sava after the Israel Defense Forces withdraw from the outskirts of Qalqilyah.

The lobby has succeeded in convincing Olmert that he faces a choice between cholera and the plague. He has decided to immunize himself against both of these ills via a simple remedy that proved itself when Benjamin Netanyahu was prime minister: They give, they get; they don't give, they don't get. The diplomatic talks will take place in accordance with the security situation in the territories. Thus Israel will be able to maintain control of the security faucet.

Abbas has agreed to link the diplomatic timetable to the security index. If Hamas renews the terror attacks, this link will let Fatah blame its rival for perpetuating the occupation. Abbas also has agreed to let a tripartite team of American, Israeli and Palestinian security officials determine whether the Palestinians are fulfilling their commitments in the fight against terror. However, Olmert is vehemently opposed to the participation of Palestinian representatives, and proposes relying on only the Americans. The reason: If a Palestinian is in the room, Israel cannot reveal sensitive intelligence information, for fear of exposing sources.

Unrelated to their chilly positions on the Palestinian issue - or perhaps it is related - key security and diplomatic officials are not encouraging opening the Syrian track. They are arguing that Syria is both interested in an agreement and capable of keeping it. But defense and Foreign Ministry officials know, as does Damascus, that Israel is interested in an agreement with Syria but unable to pay the price.

And what about Annapolis? It apparently will be "a nice event," as U.S. President George W. Bush recently promised an Arab diplomat, or a "circus," as a senior government source put it. Olmert will try to persuade Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to muster top Arab players for the performance. However, Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa is appealing to Arab leaders to make do with sending second-tier players. The league's resolution stipulates that in return for a group photograph with the leaders of Saudi Arabia and Libya (some galabiyas, as Ehud Barak put it), Israel must evacuate the occupied Palestinian and Syrian territories, including Avigdor Lieberman's home, Nokdim, and the Temple Mount, where Eli Yishai would not set foot.

Meshal and the three ducks

Khaled Meshal, Hamas' Damascus-based political leader, definitely agrees with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. She, too, thinks that the American efforts to renew the peace process in general, and the Annapolis conference in particular, are penetrating to levels far deeper than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Meshal, like Rice, is calling this a competition for hegemony in the Middle East. At a meeting he held in Damascus with a group of Arab intellectuals two weeks ago, he said the whole business is nothing but camouflage for the Americans' "major strategic game" - war on Iran.

"It is no longer a secret that the U.S. administration, under the neo-conservatives, Maestro Cheney and the backing of Israel and the Zionist lobby," is preparing for "aggression on Iran and other parts of the region - perhaps Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon or Gaza - for the West Bank is already under attack," he said. Meshal called upon the Arabs and the Muslim countries to band together against the American plot to change the balance of power in the Middle East.

Meshal went on to say that the current situation is different from that of the 1990s, mentioning the Iraq war, the unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and the Second Lebanon War. He said the U.S. and Israel can no longer frighten some people and protect others. Meshal depicted Bush as a lame duck at the end of his tenure over the ruins of Iraq and the Gaza Strip. As he put it, the fictitious negotiations with the Palestinians are serving as a facade to rescue a limping Israeli prime minister from troubles at home.

Abbas is not even mentioned in the long (16-page) transcript of the lecture. Meshal dismisses his government as "adventurers": "I believe that today's adventurers in Ramallah do not have the history, charisma or qualifications of [late PA chairman Yasser] Arafat." He promised to pluck the feathers of Fatah, limping after the American and Israeli lame ducks. "The Annapolis conference used to be portrayed as a serious step in the discussion on a final status solution. These people came out with statements deciding the future of Jerusalem, the right to repatriation, sovereignty, the issue of the borders, the crossings, and the future of the settlements in the West Bank. Now, the talks are focusing on the first stage of the road map," he said.

In West Jerusalem, too, some are warning Abbas not to enter the ambush Meshal is planning for him, in the form of a conference parallel to Annapolis. Dr. Menachem Klein is warning Abbas that recognizing Israel as a Jewish state in return for a diplomatic process does not guarantee the latter will come to fruition, and would play into Hamas hands. Klein, an observant Jew, participated in the preliminary discussions for the second Camp David summit and was a partner to the Geneva Accords.

"This is his last opportunity to insist on a permanent status agreement in accordance with the parameters acceptable to all the Arab states," said the Middle East specialist from Bar-Ilan University. "Recognizing Israel as a Jewish state in return for the Palestinian Authority being upgraded to a state within temporary borders would knock an important bargaining chip from their hands. Despite their inferior status relative to Israel, Abbas and [chief Palestinian negotiator] Ahmed Qureia do not need to repeat the missed opportunity of Oslo at Annapolis."

The American paper

At the beginning of the week, an extraordinary group of women and men stepped out of the elevator on the Middle East floor of the U.S. State Department. The group included Knesset members Colette Avital (Labor), Menachem Ben-Sasson, Amira Dotan and Yohanan Plesner of Kadima, Fatah members Qadura Fares, Sahar Qawasmi, Ziad Abu Zayyad and independent activist Issa Kassasieh. They had accepted the invitation of the Israel-Palestine Center for Research and Information (IPCRI) and the German Konrad Adenauer Foundation to embark on a joint peace mission to Washington.

The group entered the office of Dr. Robert Danin, one of the key members of the Middle East peace process team. Her rich diplomatic experience notwithstanding, Avital was unable to restrain herself. She reminded Danin that their previous meeting, which took place more than a year ago, occurred in a less pleasant atmosphere. Like most of his colleagues at the State Department and the National Security Council, Danin had argued heatedly that Abbas was a lost cause and vehemently rejected Avital's pleas to strengthen his standing. Danin did not argue, and admitted his error.

Dr. Gershon Baskin, the Israeli co-director of the IPCRI, says the delegation members - including the Kadima MKs - urged Rice's aides, headed by Danin, to present a detailed document at Annapolis that would plug the holes regarding freezing Jewish settlements, dismantling outposts and redeploying the IDF along the pre-intifada lines of September 2000. They explained that an American document would enable the sides to move from haggling to implementation, saving valuable time.

Around the same time, Defense Minister and Labor Party chair Ehud Barak was presenting his position on the negotiations to the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. It was evident he was not very interested in drafting documents that shorten proceedings and save time. Barak said that the last relevant contact Israel had had with the Palestinians was his meeting with Arafat at Camp David, which, as everyone knows, ended in disappointment (or, in the revelation of Arafat's true face, according to Barak). He argued that the Clinton parameters, which in 2000 presented solutions for all the core issues, lost their validity when the Democratic administration left office.

And what about the 2001 Taba document?

"There were several people who did not participate in the Camp David summit who thought that if it were only in their hands they would make peace," said Barak. "I said, 'Go and see for yourselves.' They had no mandate to conduct negotiations. The European envoy, Miguel Moratinos, talked with them and then wrote something of no value." Nor did Barak have a single good word about the Geneva initiative.

MK Yossi Beilin of Meretz says Barak is rewriting history. He notes that two out of the four senior ministers who were sent to Taba "without a mandate" - then-foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami and tourism minister Amnon Lipkin-Shahak - had been members of the delegation to Camp David (the other two were Yossi Sarid, who had been Barak's education minister, and Beilin himself, who was justice minister). The Meretz chair accuses the Labor chairman of doing everything so that someone else will not succeed where he failed.