Abbas Haniyeh deal 298.8.
(photo credit: AP [file])
Yesterday, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas met for the first of an indefinite series of biweekly meetings announced during Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's last visit. Before the meeting, Olmert reacted positively to reports that the Arab League might set up a working group of its more moderate states to flesh out the recently revived Arab peace initiative.
The question is, does all this diplomatic movement amount to anything? And if it is not real, can it be made to be?
The part of this that will clearly remain in the realm of make-believe for some time is the Olmert-Abbas track. Though some Palestinians claim that nothing will happen because Israel's government is weak, this is the pot calling the kettle black. Olmert is far from popular, but he is indisputably the prime minister and the government he leads is, at least on paper, stable.
Abbas, by contrast, proved unable to rein in Hamas even when he was in charge, before the elections that handed Hamas the government. His position is no better in a "unity" government, given that his joining was more of a concession to Hamas than the other way round. Abbas either cannot or will not end the terrorism of Fatah factions, let alone Hamas, and has not moved to decisively end vicious anti-Israel broadcasts by the television and media apparatus under his control.
Under such circumstances, Olmert-Abbas meetings must be considered a curiosity that is, through a momentary alignment of the diplomatic firmament, ostensibly in the marginal interest of all parties. It is not a venue that, in and of itself, will produce anything of significance.
It would be understandable to dismiss potential meetings under Arab League auspices with Israel as similarly insubstantial. Yet this would be a mistake, and it is good that Olmert has already expressed Israel's willingness to participate without conditions.
There is nothing new in meetings between Israeli and Palestinian leaders. These meetings, and even agreements, have not prevented war, terrorism and bloodshed. Before and along the way, Egypt and Jordan signed peace agreements with Israel, and other Arab states joined with Israel at a peace conference at Madrid in 1991. By and large, however, the Arab states have been standing on the sidelines, waiting for the Palestinians to lead a permanent and region-wide reconciliation with Israel.
For years, since the peace treaty with Egypt, the Arab states have told Israel that there will be no real peace without solving the Palestinian problem. If there was a time when Israel did not understand this, that time passed long ago. For decades now, Israel has, along with the international community, seen the conflict as Palestinian-centric, and focused on that aspect of the problem.
It should be obvious, however, that the Palestinian-centric approach has reached the point of diminishing returns, and perhaps beyond. The more the consensus in Israel has embraced the need for territorial withdrawal in order to create a Palestinian state, the more radical and violent the Palestinians have become, to the point that they are now led by a terrorist group openly dedicated to Israel's destruction.
In this context, the road to peace does not go through Damascus (as Speaker Nancy Pelosi averred) or even, directly, through Ramallah. It goes through other Arab capitals that claim they want peace and have the power, if they choose to use it, to create a positive momentum in the area.
Official meetings, even if they are at first held at a low level, between Arab states and Israel - particularly if held in Arab capitals or in Israel - would be an important step forward.
At the end of the day, the Arab states have to decide how important it is to them to create a real peace process. The Palestinians cannot pull themselves out of their spiral of radicalism and anarchy alone. The Arab states, by taking meaningful steps toward opening contacts with Israel, can do much more to point the Palestinians away from war and terrorism than anything the international community or Israel can do.