Diplomacy: Dangling the diplomacy bait

PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas heads to the US bearing the gift of a Fatah-Hamas unity agreement.

abbas worried 298.88 ap (photo credit: AP)
abbas worried 298.88 ap
(photo credit: AP)
Israel's diplomatic process with the Palestinians is stuck - completely - and nobody, not in Jerusalem, Washington, Brussels, Ramallah or the Arab League offices in Cairo, seems to have a clue about how, realistically, to move it forward. But, as Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said at a Washington press conference after meeting US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Wednesday, "Stagnation is not Israel's government's policy." Nor, for that matter, is it the policy of the US, Europe or all of the Arab world. The underlying assumption is that a diplomatic vacuum is a disaster, and that new initiatives must be put forward to provide hope. The idea is that some type of "diplomatic process" always needs to be dangling out there, regardless of how bleak reality is. This week, as a result, there was a whole lot of dangling going on. The Palestinians dangled in front of everyone's eyes the prospect of a Palestinian Hamas-Fatah national unity government. The details, of course, were so sketchy as to be almost non-existent. What would the government's program be? Would this new PA indeed forswear terrorism, recognize Israel's right to exist and accept international agreements, as Israel and the international community demand? No one really knows because there is no text, and the Palestinians were not clearly saying one way or the other, giving testament to the old adage, "When in trouble, mumble." Hamas was willing to let PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas dangle a national unity government before the eyes of the world because the situation in the Palestinian Authority is disastrous. The money flow has dried up, the unemployed population is mad and restless, and Israel's military pressure on Gaza - unabated throughout the summer while the world was focused on Lebanon - has had a definite impact. Hamas needs the world's help, and the only way to get it is to signal that it might, just might, play ball. Exactly what kind of ball, on what field, under what rules, no one knows. But Hamas's hope is that signaling its very willingness to step onto the field will lead to cheers and funds. The timing of the announcement of the Fatah-Hamas agreement this week was obviously no coincidence. The head of Military Intelligence, Maj.-Gen. Amos Yadlin, predicted at Sunday's cabinet meeting that the Palestinians would announce something dramatic this week because Abbas was going to attend the UN General Assembly in New York. According to Yadlin, Abbas needed something smacking of flexibility to make his life easier there, and perhaps as a way to win a meeting with US President George W. Bush. BUT ABBAS was not only the dangler this week; he was also the dangled. All of a sudden, after weeks of inconsequentiality, he once again became the last great hope, and a summit with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert became The Goal. Olmert held out the possibility of meeting with Abbas as some magic moment that would dramatically alter the present situation. "I place great importance on advancing the dialogue with our Palestinian neighbors; I remain dedicated to advancing the political process with the Palestinians according to the roadmap, and in accordance with the sequence of all its phases, starting with implementation of the first phase which calls for the dismantling of terrorist organizations and their infrastructure," Olmert said after meeting this week with visiting British Prime Minister Tony Blair. "There can be no shortcuts in implementing this process. I assured Prime Minister Blair that I am ready to work closely with the Chairman of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, to implement the roadmap and we discussed at some length all kinds of ideas and interesting suggestions that Prime Minister Blair has in regard to these issues. I also told Prime Minister Blair that I intend to meet with Chairman Abbas in order to make real progress on the outstanding issues on our mutual agenda." The words "all kinds of ideas" and "interesting suggestions" sounded suspiciously vacuous, the type of phrases uttered when nothing is really meant. Nobody gave a clue - at least not publicly - as to what these ideas and suggestions entailed. Privately, however, diplomatic officials said that after shelving the realignment plan because of the reality on the ground, Olmert really does not know where to turn with the Palestinians. Part of the reason for Livni's trip to Washington was to brainstorm with the Americans and come up with a plan. Blair, who somewhat ominously gave voice to European concerns when he said that the stability in this region impacts on stability inside Britain itself, held out Olmert's and Abbas's willingness to meet as the overarching achievement of his Middle East visit - itself a sign of the complete lack of a diplomatic process. Since no "real progress" with Abbas was made along the roadmap even when he was calling the shots inside the PA, few hold out any illusions this could be done now when he is in a much weaker position than a year ago. If Abbas couldn't, or wouldn't, dismantle the terrorist infrastructure as called for in the roadmap when he had a security apparatus under his control, why would anyone think he could do so now when Hamas is much more powerful? No one, according to a senior European diplomat who deals extensively with the PA, really believes that Abbas - whose Fatah power-base is deteriorating - can deliver anything substantial. But never mind. When there is nothing else out there, one grasps at straws, or - in this case - at straw men. And not only Israel and the Palestinians can play this game. So, too, can the Arab League. In recent weeks there have been whispers that have grown into full-fledged newspaper articles about a "new Arab peace initiative," based on the Beirut Initiative of 2002 that will be presented at the UN. Jordan's King Abdullah allegedly disclosed the outlines of the new initiative in a Time magazine interview, but a reading of the interview shows that the plan has about as much meat on it as Olmert's and Blair's "interesting ideas." "The short-term objective is to get straight back to negotiations," Abdullah said. "But we want to jump ahead to something tangible. We need to get to the point where people want to sign on the dotted line. We want to move to a two-state solution, but we are not going to go back and forth with lawyers until we get there." Whatever that means. A senior diplomat dismissed the idea of the plan, known as Beirut Plus, as a non-starter. He said that everyone realizes Israel is not going to return to the pre-1967 lines with the hope that once it does the Arab world, in return, as the original Beirut Initiative said, will establish "normal relations in the context of a comprehensive peace with Israel" - whatever that means. Again, however, never mind. Abdullah is facing a restless public that wants to see something move, so - like Olmert, Abbas and Hamas - he has to show motion. But it is just that, motion - motion without movement.