abbas speaks 298.88.
(photo credit: AP)
Vice Premier Shimon Peres told The Jerusalem Post this week that a meeting between Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas is likely to take place later this month, after Olmert returns from his first trip to Washington as prime minister.
The announcement was not surprising. Olmert had already spelled out his intention, in his electoral victory speech, to give the Palestinians one last chance to "change their ethos, to accept compromise as soon as possible." Olmert said then, "If they manage to do this soon, we will sit and work out a plan. If not, Israel will take control of its own fate..."
Olmert must make good on his election night pledge, both to maintain his credibility and to demonstrate to the international community - much of which strongly prefers a bilateral agreement over unilateral action - that he is not running roughshod over the Palestinians by single-mindedly forging ahead with his convergence plan.
However, he must do so while being careful not to exaggerate Abbas's standing as the "good cop" compared to Hamas as the "bad cop." Just because Abbas talks a better game than Hamas when it comes to claiming a desire for a negotiated settlement - not a particularly difficult task these days - he should not be elevated to savior status where Israel or the world is concerned.
The reasons for expecting little of practical importance from Abbas are manifold.
His record as leader of the PA before Hamas swept in to power hardly inspires confidence in his willingness to implement the kind of compromises to which Olmert alluded. Any minimal list of such requirements would include a determined and effective campaign to disarm all terror organizations; giving up the "right of return" of Palestinian refugees to Israel; cessation of the demonization of Israel and Israelis in Palestinian media and mosques; and development of an educational program which would promote all of these moves as good for the Palestinians' own national aspirations. When holding on to all the reins and means of power, Abbas took little or no action in any of these areas.
Even if Abbas were suddenly willing now to agree to a bona fide revolution in the Palestinian approach, his credibility and muscle are questionable at best. Palestinians expressed their acute disenchantment with Abbas's Fatah movement by handing it a resounding defeat in January's Palestinian Legislative Council elections. Hamas, as the victor, controls the legislative and ministerial machinery through which policies are brought to fruition.
But beyond the seemingly overwhelming practical challenges, there is an even more important reason to downplay Abbas's importance: international realpolitik.
Israel's strategic goal since Hamas's election win has been to force it to change its extremist stripes or to impede its ability to govern and thereby hasten its downfall. Israel has successfully convinced significant elements of the international community to follow suit based on first principles: A regime which sustains and justifies terrorism should be isolated.
Talks with the chairman of the PA, if poorly handled, could break this policy either by giving the PA as a whole international credibility and thereby decreasing pressure on Hamas, or by adding a nuance to the isolation approach: that it's OK to make distinctions between particular elements of the PA, dealing with some of them while ignoring Hamas. These are all consequences that Olmert has himself made plain he is determined to avoid.
One obvious danger in the latter scenario is that it opens the door to proposals such as that of French President Jacques Chirac, who suggested last week that the World Bank funnel assistance, including funding the salaries of PA employees, directly to the Palestinians. Such a plan would also decrease the pressure on Hamas, especially from within the Palestinian population.
The chances that Olmert's talks with Abbas will produce positive, concrete results are slim, but the possibility of their facilitating a crack in the wall of international opposition to the Hamas government is real. Olmert would do well, therefore, to publicly frame the discussions very carefully, clearly explaining Israel's expectations of Abbas and the Palestinians, and emphasizing that the talks are a last gasp attempt to salvage bilateralism - and not a recognition of the legitimacy of the Hamas-dominated PA that Abbas ostensibly leads.