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(photo credit: GPO [file])
There's an old medical joke, in which a doctor emerges from the operating room to announce: "The operation was a success, but the patient died."
Sometimes, though, it's the operation that fails, but the patient still pulls through.
Increasingly, as next week's scheduled Annapolis meeting looms ever closer, it looks like the operation isn't looking very hopeful - if one can stretch the metaphor to view the US-sponsored Israeli-Palestinian meeting as a diplomatic medical procedure to revive a moribund peace process.
The good news though, at least for those who view ongoing, substantive negotiations between Jerusalem and Ramallah as essential to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is that the patient is already showing new signs of life. Some promising concrete steps are starting to take, some serious issues are being raised, and the prognosis is at least more encouraging than it was a few months ago.
To start with, nothing is going to move forward, especially in the road map framework, unless the Palestinian Authority gets serious about controlling the terrorists in its own camp. There are now signs that the training and deployment of new PA security forces being carried out in the framework of the Dayton Plan are starting to bear fruit, especially in Nablus where hundreds of policemen were deployed earlier this month. Yesterday's raid in the el-Ain camp by PA security forces against suspected terrorists linked to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and earlier arrests of gunmen belonging to Fatah's own Aksa Martyrs Brigades are clear steps in the right direction, even more so than the expected moves against Hamas West Bank cells.
Also encouraging is PA President Mahmoud Abbas's new militancy against Hamas rule in Gaza, and the massive crowds that gathered last week there for the defiant Arafat memorial rally, which unfortunately ended in bloodshed. Although many journalists and pundits decry the growing Fatah-Hamas split as an impediment to moving toward an agreement with Israel, they have it exactly backwards. There has never been any real indication at all that Hamas would be willing to sign a genuine peace agreement with Israel, and Abbas's overdue realization that neither will he be able to do so unless he forcefully confronts Palestinian Islamic extremism is a positive development.
On the Israeli side, the seriousness of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's intentions to try and progress in negotiations with the Palestinians is becoming more apparent. The Jerusalem Post's report that no new building permits have been issued for construction in the larger West Bank settlements over the past five months and the news that Olmert is contemplating a complete construction freeze in the territories following Annapolis shows a willingness to take steps which carry real political risks for his government.
One can cynically view the prime minister's tardy invitation to Defense Minister Ehud Barak to join him and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni in the US next week as merely an attempt to spread responsibility for any stumbles there. But another way of looking at it is Olmert wisely strengthening ties with his biggest coalition partner, Labor, ahead of any possible defection from his government of such right-wing members as Shas and Yisrael Beiteinu as he prepares to make serious concessions.
But what, one might rightly ask, does any of this have to do with Annapolis itself? It's possible to argue that the pace of these events was spurred by calling such a gathering under the watchful eyes of US President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. It?s equally possible to contend this would have happened anyway with continual nudging by Washington, even without the scheduling of next week's meeting.
In fact, it now looks like some of the specific developments widely anticipated to have taken place at Annapolis and to have justified its having been arranged in the first place - namely the drafting of an Israeli-Palestinian joint statement laying out the political horizons of a possible final-status agreement and the participation of some Arab states who thus far have not directly engaged with Israel in the peace process, most prominently Saudi Arabia Â¬ are just not going to happen.
So what's left for Annapolis? The reading of separate statements by Olmert and Abbas, the announcement of the start of on-going negotiations, a photo-op for all the leaders who are already taking part in the peace-process - it hardly sounds worth the airfare.
The good news for the patient though, is that the operation looks less than critical, or even barely necessary, and it's failure, whatever that may constitute, no longer sounds quite the disaster it was once feared to be.
The only real bad news here is for the doctor - in this case, the Bush administration. Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and hopefully additional developments on the ground that can move the process forward will likely continue after Annapolis. But no one can seriously believe it will be at a pace that will lead to a final-status agreement by the time Bush and Rice vacate the White House in January, 2009.
So if the real condition that doctors Bush and Rice were hoping to treat was their struggling policies elsewhere in the region, including Iraq, Iran and elsewhere in the Muslim world, Annapolis unfortunately looks now like it will fall far short of the cure - or even the boost - that they once hoped it might have been.