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(photo credit: GPO)
Considering the track record of the summits held over the past decade in Sharm el-Sheikh, one would think the powers-that-be would consider changing venues. For, judging from the outcomes, Sharm seems jinxed.
Beginning in 1996 with a Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin-graced summit intended to bolster then prime minister Shimon Peres at a time when Israel was getting its first taste of Hamas suicide attacks, and Binyamin Netanyahu was looking good in the Israeli polls (he went on to win the election later that year); and extending all the way to the pre-disengagement summit between Ariel Sharon, PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and King Abdullah II in 2005, where so much was promised, and so little delivered, the Sharm summits have generated much pomp and ceremony, but little else.
Perhaps as a result of this history, Olmert went to Monday's summit at the blistering hot Red Sea resort with Abbas, Mubarak and Abdullah with pointedly low expectations. And he didn't come home a few hours later with an inflated sense of accomplishment or a sense that the meeting had produced any great drama. Sharm 2007 was not Yalta 1945.
He did come away, however, with a sense that by offering to release 250 Fatah prisoners, by pledging to release the frozen PA tax revenues, and by promising to significantly ease movement and access in the West Bank, he had succeeded in throwing the ball into Abbas's court.
"This is what I can do now to prop you up," Olmert seemed to be telling Abbas. "Now let's see what you can do."
Olmert's surprise announcement of an intention to release prisoners was meant to demonstrate to an international community waiting to see what Israel would offer Abbas that despite his low popularity - in fact, maybe because of his low popularity - he was willing to take political risks and promote an unpopular policy. For, while releasing frozen PA tax revenue was not something that would likely ruffle many coalition feathers, releasing prisoners as a goodwill gesture not only is not an Israeli crowd pleaser, but it could also put Olmert on a crash course with coalition partner Avigdor Lieberman and his Yisrael Beiteinu party.
Olmert went to the summit knowing that the world - especially US President George W. Bush - expected him to give Abbas something substantial, something that Abbas could take back to his people and say, "See? My way pays off."
The announcement of the release of the prisoners was also meant to get Abbas moving, a way of throwing the gauntlet down and saying to him, "Now show us what you intend to do."
And discerning what, exactly, Abbas intends to do in light of the dramatically altered situation in the Palestinian Authority was one of things Olmert hoped to get out of Sharm. In his first meeting with Abbas in months, he wanted to hear what Abbas's overall strategy was, as well as what operational plans he had.
How was Abbas going to cope with the new reality? Was he going to try and retake Gaza by force, or was he going to live with the situation? Was he interested in suffocating the region, or letting aid flow in?
ABBAS MADE clear, according to Israeli officials, that his strategy was simple: Let the West Bank bloom economically and politically, to show the Gazans what they have lost by throwing their lot in with Hamas, and then tempt them with what they could gain if they would just repudiate the organization.
Abbas couldn't put things in such bald terms, so Olmert did it for him.
"We will continuously pass on the tax monies which we collect," Olmert declared in his statement after meeting Abbas, Mubarak and Abdullah. "We will renew the security and economic cooperation between us; we will improve the freedom of movement of the Palestinian population in Judea and Samaria in a significant manner; we will renew and expand trade relations between us in Judea and Samaria, which will lead to economic well-being. The residents of Judea and Samaria will feel that choosing a path that is not violence and terrorism, but rather a path of dialogue and peace, opens new diplomatic opportunities, and leads to a better, more comfortable, more tranquil life."
It was also very telling the way Olmert phrased the segment of his carefully-crafted comments dealing with humanitarian aid that will continue to flow into Gaza. Israel, for both moral reasons and its own wider diplomatic interests, cannot allow a humanitarian crisis to erupt in Gaza. But Olmert gave the credit to Abbas for Israel's willingness to continue to provide Gaza with water and electricity.
"I acceded to the request of Mahmoud Abbas to continue humanitarian assistance for the Palestinian population living in the Gaza Strip," he said. "We will continue to provide this population with electricity, water, medical services, food and medications, in order to prevent a humanitarian crisis.
Olmert also said that Israel "cannot and will not cooperate with" Hamas in Gaza. This, too, is extremely important for Abbas.
Abbas, according to Israeli diplomatic officials, wants the difficult reality in Gaza right now to create a rift inside Hamas itself - between the hardliners aligned with Damascus-based leader Khaled Mashaal, and the more "pragmatic" Hamas stream identified with Ismail Haniyeh.
To carry this out, Abbas needs the complete isolation of Gaza. He needs Hamas to "stew in its own juices."
As such, according to Israeli officials, Abbas is afraid that possible functional cooperation between Israel and Hamas at the border crossings - needed in order to get trucks into Gaza - will become institutionalized and undermine Abbas's position.
The concern, one official said, is not over a political decision that will be made in Jerusalem to permit functional dealing with Hamas - something Abbas doesn't think will happen - but rather that the reality on the ground will dictate that the IDF officers at the border crossings will have no choice, if they want to let food and medical supplies into Gaza, than to deal with the person on the other side of the crossing. And that person will be from Hamas.
The official said that this situation is reminiscent of what happened at the Allenby Bridge following the Six Day War in 1967, when the decision to open the bridge between the West Bank and Jordan wasn't made at the political level, but rather by the IDF commander on the scene faced with a situation on the ground - Palestinians coming to the bridge to sell their produce to Jordan - that he had to deal with.
An institutionalization of functional ties with Hamas at Gaza would be a disaster for Abbas, the official said, because the Palestinians would see that they don't necessarily need Fatah intervention to get benefits from Israel, but that on a functional level Hamas could get Israel to deliver the goods.
Two weeks after Hamas surprised itself, Israel, Fatah, the Arab world and the international community by effortlessly plucking control of the Gaza Strip, a senior European diplomat succinctly summarized the new emerging policy towards the Palestinians as follows: "The West Bank first, and Gaza will follow - somehow."
It's the "somehow" that's the killer. The rough contours of how the main players view this "somehow" started to appear this week: Make the West Bank blossom, and then hope, pray and try to ensure that the Gazans will want those petals as well.