With Olmert, It's Hard to Tell

The real significance of the meeting with PA Chairman Abbas lies in the question of what hides behind Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's hyperactive lips.

Unlike many cases, in which the cliche "the importance of the meeting is in the fact of its having taken place" indicates that the participants wasted their time, this time, the significance of the meeting, and of the kiss, was indeed the fact that they took place. In order to release $100 million of the Palestinian taxpayer's money, there was no need to make Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) come all the way to Jerusalem. The importance of the meeting that was held on Saturday evening at the prime minister's residence is not measured therefore by the amount of dollars that Israel will release in the coming days, nor even by the number of prisoners that it will not release. And it would have been possible to announce the recycled decision to remove a handful of checkpoints in a press release. In fact, those modest gestures were concluded in prior meetings between advisers to the principals.

The real significance of the meeting lies in the question of what hides behind Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's hyperactive lips. Is this just another trick to repel arrows from home and abroad, or did the prime minister disengage from the disengagement policy on Saturday evening? Did the dinner mark the end of the no-partner approach, or has Olmert simply stirred the porridge that he cooked up together with his predecessor in the Prime Minister's Office?

The picture of Olmert's kiss on Abu Mazen's cheek, which took place in front of the cameras, was worth more than a thousand words said behind closed doors. If it turns out that the only results of this meeting were subpar measures to ease Palestinians' lives that are tantamount to removing the goat in the old story about the man who complained to the rabbi, Hamas will make mincemeat of them. The pragmatic "Oslo camp" will look to the Palestinian public like a bunch of collaborators that has not merely sold its national aspirations for a mess of pottage for the poor; Abbas will go down in history as a leader who lent his hand to a bloody civil war in order to find favor in the eyes of a foreign occupier. If, in the coming weeks, it emerges that the meeting did not bring the Israeli occupation closer to an end, the Palestinian rejectionists will laugh all the way to the polling stations.

Whether or not Olmert intended this, the meeting with Abu Mazen has thrust Israel into the center of the arena in which the struggle between the two Palestinian camps is now being waged. On Saturday evening, Olmert showed the world that the rules of the game have changed. Henceforth, they are no longer, "let Ahmad beat up Mohammad and Srulik will sit in the balcony and applaud." However, for this turning point to bring about a real change, further ground rules need to be amended. Above all, the ability to block the channel of dialogue must immediately be confiscated from the hands of the extremists on both sides.

This is the time to reinstate the rule that was set by Yitzhak Rabin: We will fight terror as if there were no peace process, and we will pursue the peace process as if there were no terror. Let Hamas and Israel's extreme right know that Qassam rockets and (reasonable) responses to them will not stop the process. If Olmert suspected that Abu Mazen was lending a hand to terror, and was therefore not a partner for peace negotiations, he would presumably keep him far from the prime ministerial door. But if the PA chairman is worthy of dining at the table in the prime minister's residence, why should he not be invited to sit at the negotiating table with Israel?

The conflict between Abu Mazen and Hamas revolves around an argument over what better serves Palestinian interests: an end to the occupation, via a diplomatic process whose aim is to end the conflict, or a temporary truce, whose aim is to perpetuate it. If Olmert really does have an interest in the first of these options, he has a few months left to strengthen the relevant parties. The only way to do this is by means of significant gestures, first and foremost the release of prisoners, and uninterrupted and serious negotiations, with a timetable and the clear goal of a final-status agreement. Continuing the stagnation of the diplomatic process is tantamount to supporting the second option.

But since we are talking about Ehud Olmert here, it is hard to know whether the prime minister really meant to clasp Abbas to his bosom or whether, as in the rabbinic exegesis about the kiss Esau gave to Jacob, instead of "he kissed him," the text should be read "he bit him."