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(photo credit: AP)
Israeli and Palestinian leaders will meet on Tuesday in the ornate Memorial Hall building on the grounds of the Annapolis Naval Academy to begin a day of speeches and talks during which the world will declare its support for a two-state solution.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will be in the spotlight as the two leaders try to show the 50 international delegations as well as the entire world that this decades-old conflict can be resolved within the coming year.
But while peace might seem attainable at Annapolis, 10,000 kilometers away and back in Israel the situation looks strangely different.
While Abbas and Olmert talk about making peace between Israel and the Palestinians, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other terror groups reminded the world Monday that there is another factor that is being ignored in Annapolis - Gaza.
The question of how the Gaza Strip fits into the Annapolis talks was asked immediately after Hamas's violent coup d'Ã©tat and rundown of Fatah in June. An answer, however, was never provided.
But with Olmert and Abbas set to lay the stage at Annapolis for final-status negotiations, the defense establishment is busy considering the pros and cons of launching a large-scale military operation into Gaza as a possible way to assist Abbas in returning to power there.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak has repeatedly said in recent months that every day that passes draws a large-scale operation in Gaza closer. While Barak's remarks were said in response to the daily Kassam rocket attacks and unprecedented Hamas military buildup, some military planners have begun floating the idea that a large-scale operation could also prove to be the only way for Fatah to regain control of the Palestinian territory.
Abbas's return to power in Gaza is critical for there to be any progress in the final-status negotiations and in the Palestinians' chances of establishing an independent and viable state alongside Israel. Olmert transmitted this message to the Americans on Monday and his associates have shared the same message with politicians back in Israel.
At the moment, however, Abbas is incapable of making a move in Gaza on his own, and with Hamas gaining strength in the West Bank - and contrary to public thinking, it is just as strong there as it is in Gaza - he has his hands full just trying to survive in Ramallah.
The idea is that Abbas could ride back into Gaza on top of an IDF tank and that an Israeli operation in Gaza could achieve two goals.
A long-term Defensive Shield-style operation in Gaza would firstly weaken Hamas, cut off its weapons supplies from the Sinai tunnels and hopefully curb the terrorists' rocket-launching capabilities.
Secondly, it will also weaken Hamas to the point that might allow Abbas and Fatah to try and restore their control over the Gaza Strip. Fatah is also not completely dead in Gaza, and as seen by Hamas's violent reaction to the memorial rally held two weeks ago for Yasser Arafat, Abbas's party still poses a threat to the terror group's control over the Strip.
The military course as a way for paving Abbas's return does not mean definite success. Some analysts claim that an operation would have the opposite effect on the Palestinians and would only bolster Hamas's support base in the Gaza Strip as the terror group fights against the IDF. According to this line of thinking, the only real way for Abbas to ever return to controlling Gaza is to be able to present the Palestinian people there with an alternative to Hamas.
Abbas can possibly succeed in doing this if he is able to return home from Annapolis with new commitments from US President George W. Bush about a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital, as well as a list of concessions from Olmert. If he achieves this, the Palestinians in Gaza and even Hamas might feel that statehood is on the horizon and that it is time to get on board the ship rather than be left behind.
This message will be clear to all the delegates who gather on Tuesday at the Annapolis Memorial Hall, where a blue flag hangs bearing the words: "DON'T GIVE UP THE SHIP."