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(photo credit: Associated Press)
A mere 13 km. divide the Muqata compound in Ramallah and the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem. Nevertheless, Ehud Olmert has been acting or elected prime minister for nearly a year, and Saturday evening was the first time he and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) found the time to see each other here.
Their only summit to date was in Aqaba six months ago, and that didn't do much good for the region; three days later a Hamas-led operation at Kerem Shalom killed two IDF soldiers and captured Cpl. Gilad Shalit.
It's hard to understand what there was to be gained by Saturday night's summit at the prime minister's residence in Rehavia that couldn't have been achieved over the phone or via emissaries. Abu Mazen can't deliver the two things that Israel wants most: a serious undertaking to stop firing Kassam rockets and the release of Shalit.
Hamas, which holds Shalit, and Islamic Jihad, which continues to launch Kassams despite the so-called cease-fire, have no interest in doing Abbas any favors and he has little ability to enforce his will.
Olmert might want to bolster Abbas's position by granting him a few concessions, including the release of Palestinian prisoners, but his precarious political position doesn't allow him to take any significant steps. After a summer of costly operations in Lebanon and Gaza failed to free of any of the three abducted soldiers, there is no way that Olmert can go first in any prisoner swap. Israeli public opinion just won't stand for it.
In the end, despite holding out for a few weeks, the Palestinians had to make do with a few amorphous promises to set up a committee on the prisoners, "unfreeze" some of the Palestinian money being held by Israel, and ease restrictions on movement in the West Bank which were anyway preconditions for the meeting.
In the absence of any concrete achievements, this couldn't have come at a worse time for Abbas; facing an all-out civil war between his Fatah and Hamas, the last thing he needs is footage of him being kissed twice on each cheek by Olmert. It's hard to see how his new friendship with Olmert is going to add to his popularity or make it any easier to reach a deal with PA Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh.
So why did Abbas make the trip?
Olmert has little to gain from a meeting with a chairman who can deliver nothing. He might say in every speech that he's interested in advancing the diplomatic process, but in reality, the last thing Olmert has time for is another fruitless round of talks, wasting valuable months while the Iranians get closer to a nuclear capability and Kadima's support continues to evaporate.
But both leaders had no choice. The only thing propping up Abu Mazen is the financial and diplomatic support of the international community. If he wants to remain in the good graces of US President George W. Bush, he has to publicly distance himself from Hamas and make a show of talking to Olmert. This was the message conveyed last week by British Prime Minister Tony Blair when he visited the region.
Most likely, neither Bush nor Blair will be able to change Olmert's political fortunes. He does, however, need their support to ward off pressure to enter negotiations with Syria, and to provide Israel with the diplomatic cover it needs while it tries to find a way of meeting the Iranian threat.
Bush and Blair have problems of their own and they desperately need to show their colleagues and electorates that they can also bring peace to the Middle East. Well, if not peace, at least some more optimistic pictures than those coming out of Baghdad every day.
And that was the real deal in Jerusalem last night. Olmert and Abbas cooperated to produce the pictures demanded by their sponsors. At this point, that's all they can deliver.
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