Virtual Diplomacy

Only the president of the United States can get Israel out of the territories and enlist the forces that will take its place, laying the groundwork for a central, stable Palestinian Authority. Everything else is hot air.

Judging by the headlines one would think "the peace process" was also about to be let out of jail this week. The speaker of the Knesset heads off for talks in Alexandria, the defense minister will hold talks in Cairo, the Quartet will meet in New York with the foreign ministers of Egypt and Jordan. If Shimon Peres swears he won't discuss politics and takes a kashrut inspector assigned by the prime minister, Ariel Sharon might even let him meet with the Palestinian finance and interior ministers. What all these meetings have in common is that the participants know they have to divide the cake - and leave it whole. In the days of the Shamir-Peres national unity government, Abba Eban called this sort of political activity "souffle diplomacy" - lots of air, and very little substance.

If someone woke up this week from a coma that began in July 1992, just before the Labor Party led by Yitzhak Rabin won the elections, they would think Yitzhak Shamir was still in the Prime Minister's Office and that he had managed to get Peres back into the Foreign Ministry. Once again, we're looking for kosher Palestinians, meaning those who don't appear to be subject to Yasser Arafat. Once again, busybodies and officials are getting their per diem expenses for flying off to America. Even the name on the White House door is almost the same as it was then.

As in the long years before the Oslo agreements, a right-wing government is managing once again to turn Arafat's problematic personality, and how he uses force, into the essence of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This time the right is finding its work being done by others - the leader of the free world and the leader of the Labor Party. While the Israeli tanks are surrounding all that's left of the Palestinian Authority's buildings, the State Department spokesman details the purpose of the Quartet meeting Colin Powell will convene this week in New York: "To advance the president's vision of two states ... within secure and recognized borders."

According to National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, the first necessary step for implementation of that vision is the removal of Arafat and the entire old-guard leadership, democratization and getting rid of the corruption. If she read the UN report on the Arab world, it seems the Bush peace plan is really a vision for the distant future. As The Economist summed up: "With barely an exception, [the Arab world's] autocratic rulers, whether presidents or kings, give up their authority only when they die; its elections are a sick joke; half its people are treated as lesser legal and economic beings."

The vision of peace that the Labor Party leader is carrying in his suitcase to Cairo is reminiscent of the Clinton plan, which conceded more to the Palestinians than Clinton's heir. But vision and reality are two different things. Benjamin Ben-Eliezer has announced the IDF will remain in the territories as long as there is the danger that leaving would result in harm to Jews. Since he refuses to dismantle isolated settlements without an agreement and since he objects to an agreement without the departure of Arafat, the Labor Party leader is in effect saying Israel will remain in Ramallah at least as long as Arafat is in the Muqata.

And what will happen when Arafat is gathered into the bosom of his forefathers, or reunited with is family in Paris? Does anyone really believe that people will be found who will be ready to comply with the Israeli occupier against the winds of hatred and vengeance now blowing through the Palestinian street? Will it really be possible to depart from the territories and leave the residents of Israel and the settlements to the regiments of suicide bombers, whose ranks have no doubt been filled by the curfews, closures and general distress?

There is no magic formula that will suddenly pop up in New York at the meeting of the Quartet. But it's not far from there, south, in Washington, in the Oval Office. Only the president of the United States, considered the most friendly of all, can get Israel out of the territories and enlist the forces that will take its place, laying the groundwork for a central, stable Palestinian Authority. Everything else is hot air.