Abbas and Olmert meet again but it appears they have discussed nothing of substance, writes Khaled Amayreh
As expected, the latest meeting between Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, which took place in West Jerusalem on Sunday 15 April, yielded no substantive results as Israel refused to discuss the fundamental issues of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
The two discussed what one Palestinian official described as "mundane issues" pertaining to the shape a prospective Palestinian state would take and ways and means to effect Palestinian statehood.
Following the meeting, both Abbas and Olmert said they would meet again in two weeks, probably in the presence of US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice who may have come to the conclusion that, "getting the parties talking to each other" is the most she could do under the present circumstances.
Indeed, the meeting, the fourth of its kind in less than six months, was perceived as merely a formality taking place at the US request, ostensibly to give a false impression of a continuing peace process that is either dead or dying.
Two days prior to the meeting, Olmert was quoted as saying that he wouldn't agree to discuss the main cardinal issues of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, namely the right of return, ending the military occupation and colonisation of the occupied territories, including Arab-East Jerusalem, and the borders of a prospective Palestinian state.
One Palestinian commentator scoffed at this "game of make believe", wondering if Abbas and Olmert were going to discuss the unseasonably cold weather in Palestine or perhaps the nutritional value of falafel and houmous.
The temerity of the Israeli premier didn't stop at refusing to discuss the basic issues of the conflict. According to his spokeswoman, Miri Eisin, Olmert went as far as demanding "detailed answers" from Abbas as to "what the Palestinian state would look like and the type of legal, economic and political systems that it would have."
Palestinian officials castigated Olmert for "this odious interference in inherently internal Palestinian affairs". "Israel has no right to decide how Palestinians should run their prospective state and what political and legal systems they should adopt. This is our business, not Israel's, and Israel is advised to stop getting used to telling us what to do," said PA official Saeb Erekat.
In truth, the issues are much more than just arrogance and temerity on the part of the Israeli government.
It is a deliberate modus operandi based on spin, distractions and diversionary tactics aimed at diluting the political discourse vis-à-vis the Palestinians and giving Israel an additional alibi for refusing to end its 40-year-old occupation of the Palestinian territories.
Last week, an Israeli journalist, Gideon Levy, wrote an article titled "Israel doesn't want peace", in which the prominent writer, who has been covering Israeli human rights violations in Palestine for many years, accused the Olmert government of adopting a policy of prevarication and posturing to hide and blur its rejection of peace with the Palestinians.
Even the Americans, Israel's guardian-allies, seem to have realised that Olmert is more of a spin master than a genuine statesman with a vision and a plan for peace. However, given the salient Zionist clout in the US, American officials seem to keep whatever disillusionment they have with Olmert within closed circles.
The utter futility of the Abbas-Olmert meetings draws a combination of indifference and anger from the Palestinian public. Palestinian commentators and public opinion leaders have come to the conclusion that by agreeing to take part in such encounters, the Palestinian leadership, particularly Abbas, is indulging either in self- deception or naïveté.
Hani El-Masry, a well-known columnist and political commentator criticised the PA leader for appearing in frequent and "fruitless" high-profile meetings with the Israeli premier.
"Such meetings should not take place unless there are tangible results, otherwise a false impression of normalcy between Israel and ourselves will be created as a result of such meetings," he said.
In fact, most Palestinian pundits here are convinced that the monthly or bi-monthly meetings between Olmert and Abbas are meant to blur the failure of the Bush administration to get Israel to agree to end its occupation of the occupied Palestinian territories and thereby realise the possibility of peace.
If so, these pundits would argue, why should the Palestinian leadership continue to play this game of make believe when all indications show that there will be no serious efforts to achieve peace in the Middle East under the current Bush administration?
Meanwhile, Olmert has been quoted as saying that he was open to a "reasonable exchange of Palestinian prisoners" in return for Gilad Shalit, an Israeli occupation soldier taken prisoner by Palestinian guerrillas in Gaza nearly 10 months ago.
In an interview with the Canadian TV, Olmert refused to say how many Palestinian political detainees he would be willing to free in return for releasing the Israeli soldier.
Last week hopes were raised when Israel agreed to review a list of prisoners that Hamas drew up, and demanded the release of, in return for freeing Shalit.
However, these hopes were soon dashed when Olmert and other officials rejected the list, on the grounds that it contained too many names, including key political leaders Israel is holding as bargaining chips to be used in any prospective negotiations with the Palestinians.
Olmert is apparently worried that freeing that many Palestinian prisoners would boost Palestinian morale, strengthen the Palestinian national unity government as well as the Hamas movement.
But the Israeli premier is also facing a predicament. Shalit will not be released alive (or even dead) until Israel releases Palestinian prisoners.
Moreover, the Palestinian factions holding Shalit seem to be emulating Hizbullah's tough bargaining tactics vis-à-vis Israel whereby no piece of information on Shalit, not even tangible proof that he is alive, will be given for free. Hence, all Israeli efforts to establish his whereabouts have failed.
Initially, Israel sought to free Shalit by force by carrying out deadly incursions into Gaza population centres, causing the death of hundreds of civilians, including many children, and destroying much of Gaza's infrastructure.
When that failed to liberate Shalit, the Israeli army resorted to taking dozens of Palestinian officials, including cabinet ministers and lawmakers as hostages to be used as bargaining chips to bring about Shalit's release.
And when this tactic also failed, the Israeli government resorted to rounding up hundreds of Palestinian citizens from the West Bank and dumping them in Israeli detention camps without charge or trial, with the clear aim of bullying the Palestinians into freeing Shalit.
At one point, Israel went as far as to suggest unfreezing the hundreds of millions of dollars of Palestinian tax money withheld by the Jewish state since last year in exchange for Shalit's release.
Israel, as a matter of principle, is committed to repatriating any Israeli soldier taken prisoner by the enemy, irrespective of the price to be paid. However, the price Israel is demanded to pay this time seems to be too high, at least from the point of view of the Shin Bet, Israel's main domestic security agency. Hence the dilemma.
The Shin Bet believes that releasing 1,300-1,400 Palestinians, many of them veteran leaders of the Palestinian national movement would encourage Palestinian nationalism. There is also the argument that releasing "terrorists" would encourage the Palestinians to carry out more "kidnappings" of Israelis to use as bargaining chips to force Israel to free Palestinian prisoners.
This is a spurious argument as the vast majority of Palestinians released from Israeli jails following the Oslo Agreement have been leading quiet and peaceful lives. More to the point, it is clear that most of the former prisoners are politically moderate and advocate a just solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
It is also amply clear that it is Israel which leaves Palestinians with few options other than resorting to desperate tactics, such as capturing soldiers, to force Israel to do what it should have done a long time ago, namely releasing Palestinian political prisoners.
But the most mendacious and often-cited mantra against freeing Palestinian prisoners is the argument that Palestinians are "terrorists" not prisoners of war and that they have "Jewish blood" on their hands, as if the hands of tens of thousands of Israeli soldiers, officers and even politicians don't have tonnes of Palestinian blood on their hands.