It is now apparent that even before his meeting with US President George W. Bush, Ehud Olmert has toned down his determination to press ahead with further unilateral steps.
The prime minister, warned by his advisers, has heard clear European voices saying that the international community wants the new government of Israel to take Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas more seriously.
Politicians close to Olmert, like Minister of Interior Roni Bar-On, have been emphasizing in the local media that Israel is committed to the words of Olmert from his victory speech and from the speech in the Knesset, when he presented his government, that Israel would prefer negotiations with the Palestinians.
The meeting of Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Vice Premier Shimon Peres with Abbas and an Olmert-Abbas meeting expected next week are a clear indication that Israel is at least demonstrating a willingness to engage Abbas.
Until now, the prime minister's men have been stating that, in the eyes of Israel, there is no two-headed Palestinian Authority and that in order to engage Abbas, the Hamas-led government must first accept the three by now well-known international conditions.
But the international community is busy creating a Hamas bypass for transferring funds to the Palestinians that will most likely go through Abbas's office.
Abbas had submitted a request that the donor community support 780 new employees in the office of the Palestinian president, plus 2,000 presidential guards, at a cost of $260 million. It seems that the international community is leaning in the direction of providing Abbas with the tools he requires to strengthen his position in the eyes of the public and in front of Hamas.
In the wake of a Fatah-issued ultimatum for Hamas to withdraw its newly deployed security force, various Palestinian factions are trying to prevent a complete explosion and the outbreak of civil war. This is a clear test for Abbas and his leadership, and it is one he cannot afford to fail.
ON THE diplomatic front it seems clear that the international community, including the United States, would like to give renewed Israeli-Palestinian bilateral negotiations a fair chance. Olmert seems willing to consider renewing the negotiafrom the rest of the West Bank will not create the kind of confidence necessary for successful bilateral negotiations.
In the current atmosphere, with international pressure on the PA-led Hamas leading to increased public support for the movement, Abbas will require something more substantial than theoretical promises of independence and statehood. If he is to take real action against Hamas - assuming it continues to refuse international demands - Abbas will need to gain public backing, and for that to happen negotiations must get beyond the road map.
IN AN atmosphere where real bilateral negotiations are taking place on permanent status Abbas will have the public support he needs to disband the Hamas government and replace it with a non-Hamas technocratic government, or even call for new elections.
Abbas has stated that the results of any negotiations would be brought directly to the people in a referendum, and the Hamas leadership has recognized that Abbas has the full authority to negotiate and that they would accept a referendum and its results.
But the question remains - what will be negotiated?
Israel has good reasons for adhering to the road map requirements of Phase I, including the disbanding of the terrorist infrastructure in the Palestinian territories. Palestinians need to understand that there can be no real progress as long as the Palestinian territories remain a launching ground for attacks against Israel.
The writer is co-CEO of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research & Information.
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