Puny politicians with big shadows
The sun is setting on the much-touted autumn peace conference, says Khaled Amayreh
The Palestinian Authority (PA) has strongly denied Israeli press reports alleging that secret talks between Palestinian and Israeli negotiators are about to yield a "document of understanding " as to what a prospective final-status solution between the two sides would look like.
PA officials told Al-Ahram Weekly that the Palestinian leadership is still waiting to find out if Israel has taken "a strategic decision to end its occupation of the occupied Palestinian territories, or is just clinging to the same old policy of prevarication and equivocation."
Earlier this week, an Israeli newspaper claimed that Abbas and Olmert were discussing a memorandum of understanding covering most of the core issues of the Arab-Israeli conflict, such as Jerusalem, the refugees, and borders. The document, the paper said, would be presented before the American-sponsored regional peace conference slated to take place in November.
However, according to PA officials, while the two sides have a general agreement pertaining to the issue of Palestinian statehood, there is no agreement at all on the shape of such a state, its borders and its sovereignty.
"We are still trying to find out if the Israeli government is serious about peace. I hope that the general outlook will be clearer in a few weeks," said Ahmed Subh, the highest-ranking official at the Palestinian Foreign Ministry in Ramallah. Subh told the Weekly that there still were no "clear answers" to all the questions surrounding the putative regional conference.
"We don't know when exactly it will be held, we don't know its venue, who will participate, and we certainly don't know the political reference by which the conference will be bound." Palestinian incertitude regarding the conference, dubbed by many observers as the last hope for peace for many years to come, is clearly justified.
Israel would like to reach a vague, general and open- ended agreement with the Ramallah-based regime which would very much maintain or even perpetuate the status quo for many years to come in return for a "dramatic improvement" in Palestinian living conditions.
On the other hand, the Palestinian leadership hopes that the world community, especially the United States, will pressure Israel to agree on a timetable for ending the Israeli occupation that began in 1967.
According to the Israeli press, the guidelines for negotiations with the Palestinians are restricted to "local" (presumably non-political) issues, with the immediate goal being "weakening Hamas" by way of tightening the already tight blockade on the Gaza Strip. Moreover, Israel will seek informal normalisation with Arab states for the purpose of forming a "broader diplomatic context" which would facilitate "more positive developments" in the Israeli-Palestinian arena.
On his part, Olmert, while trying to perpetuate the Hamas-Fatah rift for as long as possible in order to weaken the overall Palestinian position vis-à-vis Israel, is nonetheless uncomfortable seeing the Hamas and terror cards, which he was addicted to using as diversionary and red-herring tactics, slipping through his fingers. He is resorting to so-called prioritisation tactics.
According to Israeli officials the Israeli premier will seek to convince the Americans and Europeans that the world community must first help the PA create a sound economic base, without which any peace settlement would prove to be precarious. Israel reportedly has proposed that the West and oil-rich Arab states help the PA create a "strong welfare system" in the West Bank to win elections and gain more support than Hamas.
The plan, which was recently handed to senior PA officials during a closed conference at the pro-Israeli Washington Institute for Near East Policy, envisages the adoption by the PA of Hamas's economic methods of distributing assistance directly to the needy, in order to influence public opinion in Fatah's favour.
Needless to say, the PA, while willing to listen, is not really enthusiastic about these tactics, given its principled conviction that the Israeli occupation is the main, if not sole reason for economic deterioration and poverty in the occupied territories.
Moreover, a long-range economic recovery in the West Bank, let alone the Gaza Strip, would take many years during which Israel is likely to create more settlements, expand existing ones and complete the Judaisation of East Jerusalem. In addition, no future American administration, whether republican or democrat, would be willing or even able to force Israel to abide by any agreement, given past experience.
PA officials are aware of Olmert's stalling tactics and the problems he is facing within his own weak coalition as well as in the larger public arena in Israel. PLO official Yasser Abed Rabbo told the London- based Arabic newspaper Al-Hayat that, "if Israel continues to refuse to discuss the core issues, the peace conference will fail."
Some observers might be tempted to give Olmert the benefit of the doubt, arguing that he may want to go down in history as a peace prime minister and not as a war prime minister. However, it is obvious that there is very little if anything that would justify an Israeli turnabout vis-à-vis the Palestinians in the foreseeable future.
Ghassan Al-Khatib is a former Palestinian minister of labour. He argues that the Israeli government of Olmert was in no position to make a genuine peace with the Palestinians. "They are trying to evade the real issues as much as possible. Hence, the Palestinian Authority must never accept any arrangement or agreement that would leave the fundamental issues unresolved because then the occupation would remain intact," he told the Weekly.
Asked how he thought the possible failure of the regional conference would affect the overall political situation in the region, Khatib opined that the "involved players" would try to make it look successful. "You know most politicians are liars and deceitful, so they probably would try to make it look successful. But the important thing is not the show, but the impact in reality. In short, if the conference fails by the people's standards, it will fail even if it succeeds by the governments' standards."
One of the key reasons for the absence of optimism is the fact that Israeli defence minister and Olmert's junior but implacable political partner Ehud Barak is in no mode for final status talks with the Palestinians. Barak believes that Israel has no peace partner for a permanent status agreement and needs at least five years to get the Israeli army back on its feet following the war with Hizbullah last year.
The conclusion, according to Yoel Markus, a veteran Israeli commentator, is that "the country has entered an era of poor leadership, with respect to its quality, its motivation and its ability to put an end to the occupation." Writing in Haaretz 21 August, Markus encapsulated his view of Olmert by citing a Chinese proverb: "When little people cast a big shadow, it is a sign that the sun is setting."