The Key Is Constructive Ambiguity

The lead story in yesterday's Haaretz was not well received in Palestinian Authority headquarters in Ramallah. The story said that PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas has not definitely rejected Israel's proposal of establishing a Palestinian state with temporary borders. The chairman's office thought it so important to deny this that it issued a denial by Abbas himself to bolster the one issued by Saeb Erekat, the PLO's chief negotiator in talks with Israel.

The storm surrounding the Haaretz report was similar to that caused by a report that the PA leadership is actively preventing the opening of the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt. In both cases, leaders of Abbas's Fatah movement became nervous lest Hamas take advantage of these reports to wage psychological warfare against Fatah. So long as no Israeli checkpoints are removed, in spite of repeated promises to Abbas by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, any cooperation with Israel is viewed in the territories as collaboration with the enemy.

The ongoing bitter struggle between Fatah and Hamas obliges Israel to show special sensitivity in negotiations on the agreement of principles that is being prepared for the regional summit scheduled to take place in November. Hamas misses nothing, in any language.

A reckless formulation, of the sort that could be construed to imply concessions on a "sacred principle," could doom the summit before it even occurs.

For example, the term "a state with temporary borders" is viewed by people in the territories as reflecting naivete by their leadership - and that is in the best-case scenario. Over the years, the Palestinians have learned that for Israelis, nothing is more permanent than the temporary. They need only glance out their windows to see the dozens of illegal outposts that have been transformed into permanent settlements.

On the other hand, Olmert knows that the Israeli public is concerned that any final-status agreement with the Palestinians will very quickly prove to be temporary, just as happened with the agreements to end acts of violence. If the Israeli public has forgotten the suicide bombings, you can bet that Benjamin Netanyahu will be there to remind them.

In their effort to find a formula for bridging the temporary and the permanent, Olmert and Vice Premier Haim Ramon have adopted the method of "constructive ambiguity," which allows each side to have its own interpretation. In the case of temporary borders, the compromise formula is expected to stipulate temporary borders in the first stage, but with no declaration of statehood until there is an agreement on final borders. Olmert will be able to claim to have successfully implemented his plan for "convergence" to the separation fence and fulfilled his promise to separate Israelis and Palestinians. Abbas will be able to pride himself on his success in getting rid of soldiers and settlers in at least 92 percent of the West Bank.

Two essential requirements for such an arrangement are international guarantees and a timetable. These will stipulate that if relations across the fence are peaceful, Israel will grant the Palestinians fair territorial compensation - in terms of both quantity and quality - within an agreed period of time. The term "fair" enables Olmert to tell the folks back home that he has not committed to withdrawing from all of the territories, while Abbas will be able to promise that in the final settlement, the Palestinians will receive territory equal to 100 percent of the West Bank.