Border Control /Three Times No

As decision time on direct peace talks approaches, the PA's Mahmoud Abbas stands between a rock and a hard place

At the start of his last meeting with George Mitchell at the Muqata'a in Ramallah about three weeks ago, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen ) introduced the American envoy to an unfamiliar person: "I'd like you to meet Yasser al-Masri, a head of the Takamul (Wholeness ) group, which is calling for the establishment of a single state on the land of historical Palestine."

Amos Biderman
Amos Biderman

Abbas asked al-Masri, a former inmate in an Israeli prison, to tell Mitchell about the new movement, which is comprised of academics and people from the intermediate level in Fatah - moderates who have despaired of the two-state solution. This was Abu Mazen's unconventional way to send the White House a hint about the gravity of his political situation and the bleak mood he has been in recently.

For quite a long time al-Masri lectured to the surprised guests about the increasing disappointment with the peace process among the Palestinian populace. On their way to Jerusalem, the members of the American delegation saw Takamul billboards supporting the establishment of a single state between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. In an interview to the pan-Arab newspaper Al-Hayat (July 24 ), al-Masri said that even though 99 percent of the elements of the two-state solution are known and have been detailed, initiatives like the Geneva Initiative are turning yellow in drawers.

According to him, in the Palestinian political arena there is no more pragmatic leader and more enthusiastic supporter of the two-state principle than Abbas. "If Israel isn't capable of reaching an agreement with him," demanded al-Masri, "then with whom does it want to make peace?"

Judging by the increasing American pressure on Abbas to embark on direct negotiations, al-Masri's message hasn't been internalized in Washington. It is very doubtful that President Barack Obama has looked closely at Mitchell's report about the special guest the Palestinian president summoned to his office. The Middle East has been relegated to the bottom of the American president's agenda.

Six political consultants (among them two Jews ) who were asked by The New York Times to offer Obama a platform for rescuing his public status wrote about economics, health, housing and climate. Not a single word about foreign policy issues.

The leader of the free world is therefore contenting himself with the role of letter carrier between Ramallah and Jerusalem. Obama has presented Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu three alternatives that Abbas proposed for clearing a path to direct talks. One is sending a diplomatic note from Obama to Israel and the Palestinians in which he will promise the negotiations will deal with establishing an independent state within the borders of June 4, 1967, along with a moratorium on the settlements. The second is a similar note from the quartet. A third option is convening an Israeli-Palestinian-American meeting for the purpose of prior agreement on the source of the talks' authority.

Obama has informed Abbas that Netanyahu has said three times "no." So no.

In the coming days Abbas will have to choose between a rock and a hard place. The rock: submission to the American demand to enter negotiations without a prior commitment to extend the building moratorium in the settlements (while ignoring its violation ) and without Israel relating to the Palestinian paper detailing their positions on the core issues. The price: further erosion of his standing, especially as prominent Fatah leaders headed by Mahmoud Dahlan, Marwan Barghouti and Ahmed Qurei (Abu Ala ) have loudly and as one man called for rejecting the American demand. The hard place: the refusal by a leader without a state of a personal request from the president of the greatest power in the world. The price: another victory for Netanyahu in the most important international arena.

What this government deserves

Defense Minister Ehud Barak need not be shocked by the dirty fight for the position of chief of general staff. Lt. Gen. (ret. ) Barak can teach the generals a thing or two about recruiting politicians - and also journalists - against colleagues/rivals. Firsthand personal knowledge. He was not the first, nor will he be the last to pull every possible string to advance his chances in the race to becoming chief of staff.

A senior officer in the reserves related this week that a man who introduced himself as an activist in the campaign of one of the contenders begged him to help in muddying Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant's reputation. (He refused. ) The man told the officer that the campaign is, in an organized fashion, making use of connections in the media and the Knesset. Obviously, if it emerges that Galant had anything to do with the notorious document, he will have to turn in his major general's insignia. However, even if he emerges from the affair pure as snow, it is doubtful Galant is the most suitable person these days to hold the most important military position in the country.

In the relatively long years he has served as GOC Southern Command, Galant demonstrated the aggressive side of the Israel Defense Forces vis-a-vis the Palestinians. He never missed an opportunity to preach to the military hierarchy to let the IDF off the leash and approve an all-out attack on the Gaza Strip.

Even diplomatic-security coordinator Amos Gilad, who is not known as a wimp regarding the Palestinians, is considered a serial conceder relative to him. In a discussion in the General Staff forum in August 2006, with the participation of then-defense minister Amir Peretz (now a Labor MK ), Gilad reported that the American administration was pressing for the opening of a cement pipeline to the Gaza Strip, to enable the repair of homes and essential facilities damaged in air force bombings.

The coordinator of activities in the territories, Maj. Gen. Yosef Mishlav, noted that thousands of unemployed Palestinian workers were awaiting the pipeline's opening. The forum decided the pipeline should be opened. Galant appealed the decision to the chief of staff, Dan Halutz, who rejected the appeal. However, under Galant's orders the pipeline remained closed most of the time, "because of terror attack alerts." Another order of his - contrary to the minister's instruction - banned the entry of newspapers and mail to the Gaza Strip.

And perhaps, in fact, he is the chief of staff this government deserves.