Analysis: Treading water after Annapolis

What is the peace process really waiting for, and a plan on how to neutralize Hamas.

olmert annapolis 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
olmert annapolis 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and US President George W. Bush met amid great pomp and ceremony in Annapolis exactly one month ago. When Olmert and Abbas meet Thursday in Jerusalem for their first meeting since Annapolis, they will not have to waste too much time surveying the past month, because not a whole lot has happened for them to survey. Instead, what has become increasingly clear since the Annapolis meeting is that there are two different universes. There is the universe of Annapolis meetings and Paris conferences, of handshakes and speeches; and there is the universe of Hamas entrenchment in Gaza, arms smuggling from Egypt, Kassam rockets and IDF military actions. The two universes are spinning in separate orbits, and they do not intersect. While the Palestinians have done a good job over the last month convincing international public opinion that construction in Har Homa and the settlements is what is holding everything up, in actuality the more fundamental problem is not a few hundred housing units that will be built atop Har Homa, but rather the tunnels that are being constructed under the Philadelphi Corridor. When Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni told the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee earlier this week that Egypt's performance on the Egyptian-Gaza border was "awful and problematic," she knew well her words would complicate relations with Egypt, one of Israel's key strategic allies. But she also knew that the ongoing smuggling from Egypt into Gaza also poses a strategic threat to Israel, as an emboldened Hamas strengthened with massive quantities of explosives and weapons would doom any diplomatic process with the Palestinians. For a long time Hamas has been the elephant in the Annapolis process room that no one wants to talk about. But with the elephant being fed through Egypt and growing, it is impossible to ignore, and its size and strength cast a shadow over everything else. What exists now, a senior diplomatic source said recently, are negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, not a true diplomatic process. Israeli-Palestinian bilateral "negotiations" can go on indefinitely, but for a diplomatic process to work, both sides need to be in a position to compromise. With Hamas gaining military strength, very much in control of Gaza, and breathing down Abbas's neck, the PA president will be unable to compromise on any of the core issues until Hamas's wings are clipped. For instance, it is difficult to imagine Abbas taking anything but maximalistic positions - while looking over his shoulder at Hamas - regarding the Palestinian refuge issue. On the Israeli side, Olmert doesn't at this time even want to get into a position where he will have to take a stand on the core issues. This is the reason why no decision has yet been made on setting up working groups on these issues, even though working groups are a key mechanism in negotiations. Olmert, it seems, is reluctant to set up these groups, because if they are set up to deal with issues like refugees, Jerusalem, settlements, security, water and borders, Israel will have to stake out a clear position. And any clear position that Olmert stakes out on Jerusalem or the settlements, for instance, would likely upset somebody in his coalition and shake up a government apple cart that is not all that sturdy anyway. Up until now Olmert has been able to give something to both the Left and the Right in his coalition: talks with the Palestinians for the Left, and continued construction in Har Homa and the large settlement blocs for the Right. He is in no hurry, especially with the final Winograd Committee Report looming large in January, to take any step that would antagonize anyone in his coalition whom he may soon need for political survival. While both Olmert and Abbas said in Annapolis they hoped to reach an agreement by the end of 2008, the way things look now, the coming year will be marked less by an agreement and more by attempts to tread water until the political situation clears up somewhat in Israel, until someone comes up with a plan on how to neutralize Hamas in the Gaza Strip, and until next January. By that time a new US administration will be in place which, if recent history is any indication, may very well have different ideas on the Middle East that could send everybody scampering back to square one.