Proximity Fuse

A tall, graying pilot in a U.S. Air Force uniform walked through the General Staff Building in Tel Aviv last month with a thoughtful, or maybe worried, expression on his face. This was Lt. Gen. Paul J. Selva, assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon, following his meeting with a pilot in an Israel Air Force uniform, Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel, head of the army's Plans and Policy Directorate.

Selva is the Pentagon official who accompanies Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on her trips abroad. He also has another role left over from the days of former secretary Condoleezza Rice and the Annapolis summit: He is the road map peace plan's kashrut supervisor.

The Obama administration's statement that the Annapolis understandings no longer obligate Israel has no real substance. At bottom, in Jerusalem as well as in Washington, there is continuity between administrations. Selva, like Lt. Gen. Keith Dayton, who is building up the Palestinian security forces, was held over from the previous administration to the current administration. If Israel wants former president George W. Bush's vague promise to former prime minister Ariel Sharon - that any Israeli-Palestinian deal will recognize "the new realities on the ground" - to obligate Bush's successor, President Barack Obama, then there must also be continuity from Sharon through former prime minister Ehud Olmert to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Interim agreements have always been considered nonbinding until there is a comprehensive agreement. The talks between Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, or between former foreign minister Tzipi Livni and former Palestinian prime minister Ahmed Qurei, would not have obligated Livni, either, had she formed the current government. But practically speaking, national, organizational and personal memory form the basis for continued talks. There is no such thing as a clean slate. There are only slippery leaders.

Nor is Annapolis dead in a more profound sense. American policy has two stages: It starts with ana, which means "please" in Hebrew, and moves on to polis, which means "police" in Turkish. If polite urging does not suffice, we will glimpse the international policeman's baton - that of military, economic and diplomatic aid, and also that of the police force that hightails it out of the neighborhood when war breaks out between gangs who murder each other. A degree of isolationism, expressed in bumping Israel and its neighbors down on the list of international locales to which the White House gives its attention.

Fear of the impact of a failed diplomatic process led by America formed the background to both the talks with Egypt in 1977 and those with the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1993: Both began courtesy of a third party (Morocco, Norway), but were handed over to the Americans as a draft account when the time to close it arrived. Processes that begin with an American initiative - such as the talks with Syria, from the Madrid summit to Shepherdstown - have never succeeded, even if through no fault of the mediators.

The indirect talks between Netanyahu and Abbas, after nearly 17 years of direct talks between former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and his successors on the Israeli side and Yasser Arafat and his successors on the Palestinian side, reflect a regression presented as progress. One must look not only at the talks' exterior casing, but rather at the ridiculous deal that ended with each side getting what it wants - Netanyahu the casing and Abbas what isn't inside it. The former will be able to say he talked, and the latter, that he has proved there is no one to talk to and nothing to discuss.

Israel's real problem is not with the Palestinians or the Syrians; its real problem is with itself: It has no self-definition. Israel has not yet decided what it wants to be when it is no longer so big. It is avoiding actions that accord with what is ostensibly its guiding idea - "to be a free nation in our land" - because it is still not clear on what our land is, who belongs to our nation and how concepts of freedom, independence and sovereignty should be implemented in an impossibly knotty world of dependency and reciprocal relations. Therefore, Israel's representatives conduct empty, conditional talks, on the implicit assumption that toward the end, they will have to go back to those who have sent them to receive the authorization without which the talks had no point to begin with.

Without an overarching idea, a vision from which to derive the moves that together make up a path, Israel is subject to endless turbulence, which is making it seasick. It has only political captains, who fear to lead and whose message is "both this and that." "Situation assessments" and "staff work" are the faded substitutes for statesmanship, leadership and winning the hearts and minds.

Prior to real proximity talks between Israel and itself, any contacts with any Arab party will become proximity fuses - detonators of bombs, landmines, booby traps or missile and rocket warheads, which cause explosions when the intended victim draws near.