olmert abbas close 298.8.
(photo credit: AP [file])
On the surface, it all looks so very important.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert drives down to Jericho, two helicopters hovering overhead, for the first meeting in the West Bank of an Israeli prime minister and a Palestinian leader since Ehud Barak met with Yasser Arafat before the violence of September 2000.
Dramatic? Historic? The main event? Forget it. Instead, pay close attention to a line former Quartet envoy James Wolfensohn said in an interview last month with Haaretz.
"There has to be a moment when Israelis and Palestinians understand that they are a sideshow," he said in a very telling comment.
And, if that wasn't clear enough, Wolfensohn piled it on for effect: "Israelis and Palestinians really should get over thinking that they're a show on Broadway. They are a show in the Village, off-off-off-off Broadway."
When Olmert and Abbas sat down in Jericho's Intercontinental Hotel over a traditional Arab dish of chicken and rice, they were talking about issues that affect us deeply - what are increasingly being referred to very vaguely as the "fundamental issues." But these issues, as fundamental as they might be, must be seen within the greater context of the overall tumult in the Middle East and the US effort to do something - anything - to contain it.
Olmert made two seemingly contradictory statements in Jericho.
First, when he arrived, he said: "I came here in order to discuss with you the fundamental issues outstanding between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, hoping that this will lead us soon into negotiations about the creation of a Palestinian state." And then, after he met Abbas for a 90 minute tÃªte-Ã -tÃªte, he said: "The aim is to achieve US President George Bush's vision which both we and the Palestinians share of two states for two peoples, living in security and peace side by side, and we want to do this as soon as possible." He added that this process must be based on the road map.
But there is an inherent contradiction between plans now to sketch out with the Palestinians an agreement of principles or a framework for an agreement, and the road map.
The road map was based on a step by step process. First the Palestinians stop terrorism, and then there are negotiations for peace.
While pledging allegiance to the road map, Olmert is now turning that step-by-step process around. Rather than first security, and then peace, Olmert and Abbas are talking roughly about how peace will look, believing that then security will be achieved.
Ariel Sharon spent a lot of time in 2001 and 2002 convincing both the Americans and the Israeli public of the need to achieve security first, and then to talk about an overarching peace agreement. But now there is suddenly no time, and the feeling in Jerusalem is that waiting for the PA to uproot the terrorist infrastructure, as spelled out in the road map, would mean waiting for ever, and in the meantime Hamas would not only have consolidated its hold on Gaza, but also made giant inroads into the West Bank.
Suddenly there is a new sense of urgency because of the fear that there is no time to wait, and that Hamas - and by extension Iran - will move on the West Bank if some kind of accommodation between Israel and the Palestinians is not reached.
And this is where Wolfensohn's theory about our being off-off-off-off Broadway comes into play.
The US needs progress here to try and consolidate a moderate Arab coalition as a counterbalance to the threatening Shi'ite crescent. And there is no better way to breathe life into this moderate coalition then to show diplomatic progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front.
The US needs a regional meeting in November no less, and probably far more, than either the Israelis or the Palestinians. The US needs this meeting to show the Iranians that there is a coalition of the moderate Arab willing who will some day stand up to them.
The US, at some point, will leave Iraq, but it is unlikely to do so unless it has assurances that there is a coalition of states that will not just let Iran march into the breach. It is in the US's interests to cobble this coalition together as soon as possible. At the regional conference, Bush wants to be able to say: "I created the moderate Arab coalition."
We're important, but we're just one brick in the anti-Iranian coalition the Americans want to form. It is not insignificant that US Defense Secretary Robert Gates accompanied Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on her visit last week to Egypt and Saudi Arabia - but did not follow her to Israel. Right now, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf countries are the cornerstones of this coalition. Israel and the Palestinians, or rather a possible Israeli-Palestinian agreement, are the glue the US has in mind to stick that coalition together. â€¢