(photo credit: AP [file])
Insanity, Albert Einstein once reputedly said, is doing the same thing every time, and expecting different results.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert spoke as a man aware of that definition this week when he waged a defense, both in the cabinet and the Knesset, of his decision to plod ahead with the diplomatic process with the Palestinians, despite the weakness of the Palestinian Authority leadership, despite the unrelenting Kassam fire from Gaza, despite Iran and despite the fatal failures of the past.
The subtext of what Olmert told the cabinet and the Knesset was that this time things would be different; that he was not naive or nuts; that he was not blindly walking down the same garden path that has led time and again to terror, violence and bitter disappointment.
Firstly, Olmert asserted, the PA leadership is different - President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salaam Fayad, unlike their predecessors, really and truly want peace.
Olmert told his cabinet on Sunday that during his frequent talks with Abbas over the last few months he has found him "consistent, systematic, against terrorism, prepared for serious dialogue and someone who wants peace with Israel."
In the past, Olmert said, there was a serious gap between what the Palestinian leaders said and what they meant. "But the situation now is different," he asserted. "For the first time there is a leadership that wants to reach peace based on two states living next to each other in peace and security, amid recognition that Israel is a Jewish state. This is something we were not convinced of in the past."
The second big difference between the current process and previous ones was that that while Israel was willing to negotiate a permanent status agreement with the Palestinians, this time Israel would not implement what is agreed upon until the Palestinians prove they can carry out their side of the bargain.
"I am differentiating between the rhetoric and the implementation," Olmert told the cabinet. "Israel won't carry things out on the ground before the other side withstands the test of implementation."
With these two premises key to his thinking, Olmert - after months of keeping everyone guessing about his overall conception of the current diplomatic process - provided a clearer picture of where he thinks things are headed.
While he believes Abbas wants peace, he also recognizes there are enormous gaps between what Abbas wants and what he is able to carry out.
While the conventional wisdom in Jerusalem is that Yasser Arafat had no intention of ever reaching or implementing a permanent status deal, Olmert said that Abbas genuinely wants to reach an agreement, but doesn't currently have the ability to implement it.
Which leaves Jerusalem in a dilemma: Should it wait until something changes dramatically on the other side, content for now with the status quo? Or should it try to work with the exiting PA leadership, imperfect as it may be, to try to forge a change in the situation?
OLMERT TOLD the cabinet there were as many risks in doing nothing as in continuing with the current diplomatic process. For instance, if Jerusalem did nothing, he said, then Hamas, which already controls Gaza, and is indeed fortifying its control over the Strip, could very well extend its influence to the West Bank.
As a result, treading water - in Olmert's mind - is not an option. Instead, his plan is to go to Annapolis in the last week of November in the hope of gaining the support for negotiations on everything from Jerusalem to settlements, security to refugees.
In his thinking, a key difference between this approach and Ehud Barak's experiment at Camp David in 2000 is that any agreement reached will remain in abeyance - put on a shelf so to speak - until the Palestinians prove they can implement it. In this approach, the Palestinians get their political horizon and hope, but Israel doesn't have to make its concessions until they have proven they can implement things on the ground.
What Olmert didn't do in revealing this overall strategy was address two major pitfalls to the approach.
The first is that any agreement he reaches now - even it is only placed on the shelf - will surely commit future governments, just as Yitzhak Rabin's famed commitment to then US secretary of state Warren Christopher in August 1993 to fully withdraw from the Golan Heights has to this day remained the starting point of negotiations, or even possible talk of negotiations, with Syria.
The second is continuing to ignore Gaza and Hamas. Say an agreement is reached. What happens to Gaza? What happens to Hamas? Will the Palestinian people truly look at their newfound political horizon and say, "Hey, this is great, let's turn our backs on Hamas and embrace Abbas and the 'moderates'?" Will Hamas, or Iran, let them? How, exactly, will the tide be turned in Gaza?
ONE SENIOR military source was quoted in the press this week as saying that the chances of Fatah returning to control Gaza in the next few years are about as good as Mikhail Gorbachev coming back to rule Russia. If that indeed is the case, then what practical good is an agreement with Abbas?
Diplomatic sources acknowledged this week that Hamas and the situation in Gaza pose a key problem, and gave assurances that the country's political and security echelons realize that Hamas and Gaza cannot be ignored amid the simple hope that "everything will be okay."
But the current idea, they said, is to take everything one step at a time. First forge ahead with Abbas, and then see how things develop in Gaza, with the assumption that the process will develop a dynamic of its own that will carry Hamas and Gaza in its flow.
Wishful thinking? Maybe. But developments in the Middle East do, indeed, often have a dynamic all their own. Take for example the US-sponsored meeting planned before the end of the year. In less then four months it has morphed from an idea for a small get-together between Israel, the PA and some key regional players into a major international summit. The Palestinians now want even Brazil, India and South Africa to attend.
The idea for the meeting was first broached during a luncheon in Washington in June, soon after Hamas took over Gaza, among Olmert, US President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. The idea then was for a small meeting of those parties who wanted to help Israel and the PA continue with a diplomatic process. This minimalistic approach was reflected in the language Bush used when he publicly presented the idea during his Middle East policy speech of July 16.
"The world can do more to build the conditions for peace," Bush said. "So I will call together an international meeting this fall of representatives from nations that support a two-state solution, reject violence, recognize Israel's right to exist and commit to all previous agreements between the parties. The key participants in this meeting will be the Israelis, the Palestinians and their neighbors in the region. Secretary Rice will chair the meeting."
No sooner had Bush talked of an international meeting, than it was being touted in the press as a full-blown "peace summit."
The meeting quickly turned from a tool to facilitate bilateral Israeli-Palestinian talks to an end game in and of itself, a situation that - according to recent assessments in Jerusalem - has worked very much in the Palestinians' favor.
According to these assessments, the PA now perceives the vastly inflated meeting to have presented it with a unique win-win situation.
If the meeting indeed comes off and a document is produced that is a springboard for permanent status negotiations, then they have won a victory by having been able to take a shortcut around the road map and begin negotiating permanent status issues without first having had to uproot the terrorist infrastructure. But if the meeting does note even take place - because of Israel's insistence that the document presented be very general, and not deal in details of a possible agreement and present a timetable - then this is also something the PA could spin as a victory.
On the international stage, the expectation in Jerusalem is that it would largely succeed in blaming Israeli "intransigence" for the failure to get off the ground, while domestically the PA could win points vis-a-vis Hamas were the meeting cancelled, by saying that it - too - refused to compromise on basic Palestinian interests.
Either way, the PA stands to win. Olmert's challenge in the coming week, with Rice's arrival to prepare the groundwork for the meeting, is to also ensure that Israel has something tangible to gain by going to it. Or, at the very least, to make sure that it won't lose much if the conference, which has taken on a life of its own and barely resembles what Israel wanted to see a few months ago, doesn't come into being at all.
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