Three Permanent Settlements

It is easy for Bush to mortgage the American position on the permanent borders, wrapping it in different packaging for Israelis and for Palestinians.

Uzi Landau was excited. He watched last Thursday's White House press conference with George Bush and Mahmoud Abbas and came away feeling that they were validating his claim that Ariel Sharon received no diplomatic rewards in exchange for the disengagement plan. Landau felt he'd caught the prime minister in his lie: Bush promised Abu Mazen that any change in the Green Line would be carried out with the mutual agreement of the sides. He said nothing about leaving the West Bank settlement blocs in Israel's possession, which Sharon offers up as the historic accomplishment of his withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

And so an interesting political union is formed between the Palestinian Authority chairman and the Likud rebel leader. Both men have an interest in playing up the Americans' reward to the Palestinians. However, had Landau read Abbas' article in the Wall Street Journal, which appeared the morning of his meeting with Bush, he would have discovered that under the cover of the evacuation of 7,300 settlers from the Gaza Strip, Israel is building homes for 30,000 new settlers in the West Bank. Which reinforces Sharon's claim that the disengagement is essentially a "Gaza for the West Bank" swap.

So who are Bush and Abbas helping in the internal Likud squabble - the prime minister or his adversaries? Sharon thinks the American-Palestinian summit strengthened opponents of the disengagement. He remained unsatisfied even after asking for and receiving clarifications from the White House that America is still sticking to the "Bush letter" of 2004, according to which the future border would take into account "existing Israeli population centers." Now it is the Palestinians' turn to protest. They, after all, had termed the Bush letter the "end of the peace process" and rejected it outright. But Sharon claims they left the White House happy, too happy to his taste.

The confused shuffling of positions is not coincidental. It stems from internal needs of the parties, who prefer to talk about the distant future rather than deal with the burning issues and go back to real negotiations. Everyone is talking about the permanent settlement, and everyone is meaning something else. One man's ceiling is another man's floor.

It is easy for Bush to mortgage the American position on the permanent borders, wrapping it in different packaging for Israelis and for Palestinians. In so doing, he demonstrates involvement and accomplishment, fending off charges that he has washed his hands of the conflict. But the permanent settlement talks are still far off, and it is doubtful they will come to fruition while he is still in office. In the meantime, the president makes do with Sharon's disengagement and Abbas' partial democratization, and soft pedals on the evacuation of settlement outposts and dismantling of the terror groups. These will wait for "the day after" - after the disengagement, and after both sides' elections.

Abbas is showing enthusiasm for a renewal of talks on borders, Jerusalem and refugees, and is calling on Sharon to meet with him and negotiate. This wooing is accompanied by a threat - that expansion of the settlements and construction of the fence will lead to the end of the "two-state solution" and of Palestinian democracy. He talks about an end to the conflict this year, but knows there is no chance for it, that he lacks an Israeli partner for any such settlement. His statements are designed to camouflage his domestic weakness and strengthen Fatah's position in the elections for the legislative council. It is easy for him, too, to talk about the future and downplay the oppressive present.

And Sharon? He wants to gain time to survive, remain in power, win the Likud leadership race and make progress toward the annexation of the settlement blocs. Which is why he, too, is talking about the permanent settlement ("Jerusalem will not be up for discussion"), although his timetable is much longer than that of Abbas. The end of the conflict will come, he believes, only when the Arabs recognize Zionism. It is hard to see that happening this year, if ever. Given these conditions, there isn't even the beginning of a basis for dialogue on a permanent settlement. Only the same game of tossing the ball around, from one court to the other.