Analysis: With the world watching, Abbas is flying high

Whatever comes out of Tuesday's conference, the Palestinians have reasons to be cheerful.

bush abbas 88 (photo credit: )
bush abbas 88
(photo credit: )
There is no Israeli flag flying from any of the four flagpoles outside the Washington hotel where Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and the rest of the Israeli delegation are staying for this week's Annapolis summit. Security concerns, presumably. A short drive away, at the Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas's hotel, by contrast, the Palestinian flag waves high and proud. And, inside, members of the Palestinian delegation are only too happy to publicize their presence and spread their message. Whatever comes out of Tuesday's conference, the Palestinians have reasons to be cheerful. Abbas's authority is being publicly bolstered by a grand show of support from across the Arab world and beyond. The very fact of Annapolis taking place, and attracting the wide Arab representation that seemed uncertain just a few days ago, is a resounding success for his shaky rule, a very public assertion of American and international support for him, and a demonstrative show of concerted opposition to his Hamas rivals and their Iranian sponsors. And the degree to which the status of the Palestinian leadership has been upgraded since the last such gathering, the 1991 Madrid peace conference, is profound. His predecessor Yasser Arafat was neither invited himself nor even permitted to send a representative to that summit. Here, as his adviser Nabil Sha'ath happily points out to The Jerusalem Post, Abbas's standing is "on a par" with that of Olmert and President George Bush. While the Israeli delegates have largely hunkered down since their arrival, at the Palestinians' hotel, members of the delegation are more readily available. Indeed, two of Abbas's advisers - the cheerful, high-volume Sha'ath and the far more downcast and soft-spoken Nabil Abu Rudaineh - have been engaged in something of a good cop, bad cop routine in the run-up to Tuesday's summit. Sha'ath is expressing guarded optimism about the likelihood of Annapolis ultimately leading to substantive progress. Abu Rudaineh is strikingly less upbeat. Where they echo each other, however, is in emphasizing that success or failure hinges on Israel, on whether the Israelis are "serious about peace." Abu Rudaineh, perhaps best remembered as the figure who was frequently to be seen whispering suggested texts into Arafat's ear when words failed the late Palestinian leader in his final years, says flatly to the Post that "Israel is not ready yet for peace." And he couples that assessment with the grim warning that "If we fail here, Teheran and every extremist will be happy." The terms of a final settlement, he asserts, echoing a view that is increasingly commonly heard from Arab officials and politicians, could be wrapped up "in 10 days." But Israel, he goes on, is doing everything to avoid getting into the toughest areas of negotiation. The sides have been talking round these issues for 16 years, since the Madrid peace conference, he says, running down a list of "final-status" subjects including Jerusalem, settlements, borders and refugees. But "there was no joint statement" agreed upon ahead of Tuesday's summit, because "Israel didn't want specifics." Olmert and Abbas met "seven or eight times," he protests, and because of that purported Israeli unwillingness to commit, "they couldn't draft a single word." Staying specific, Abu Rudaineh says Israel needs to freeze settlement, remove roadblocks, release prisoners and take other confidence-building measures right away. As for Palestinian obligations, and first and foremost the need to tackle terrorism and take effective control of Palestinian areas in the West Bank, they get taken care of automatically "if there is a political achievement." A genuine deal would be backed by "90 percent of the Palestinians," he says, and thus, by definition, the extremists would be marginalized and could be thwarted. Unlike the self-effacing Abu Rudaineh, Sha'ath speaks loudly and unhurriedly, with the confident and expansive gestures that recall his former role as PA foreign minister. He says he doesn't want to exaggerate his optimism, but that plainly "this is an opportunity." There is real, worldwide interest in making progress, "otherwise 48 countries would not have been seeking invitations" to the summit. And there must be a widespread sense of what he calls "doability" because "people don't come to a conference that is doomed to failure." He, too, laments the failure thus far by the Israeli and Palestinian negotiating teams to agree on a substantive joint statement of principles ahead of the summit, but doesn't sound too put out. "If we fail on the joint statement, we'll engage on the basis of the agreed terms of reference," he says. He takes encouragement, he says, from the 72% of Palestinians polled recently as supporting Abbas's trip to these talks, and from the falling levels of Hamas popularity - down to 10% in Gaza, he adds, and 16% in the West Bank. "Success in the endeavor" of peacemaking, he declares, "will strengthen both" Abbas and Olmert. He doesn't shrug off Israeli security concerns completely, claiming that the PA is working "very zealously" to bolster security in the West Bank. But like Abu Rudaineh, he insists that real progress on the "political vision" will have an automatic beneficial impact on the ground, and will pave the way to the "revival of Gaza" as well. And he reels off a similar list of confidence-building measures he urges Israel to take, in order to complement the diplomatic track. Perhaps the key to Sha'ath's upbeat tone, however, is that he is clearly taking the longer view. While Abu Rudaineh complains about 16 years having passed since Madrid without substantive change, Sha'ath cites Madrid in a far happier context. At those talks, he recalls, the Palestinians were prevented from so much as sending an independent delegation, instead being subsumed in a joint team with the Jordanians. Their leader could not attend, there could be no PLO representation, no delegate from Jerusalem, and there was no citing of independent Palestinian statehood as a goal of the process. Annapolis, by contrast, is all about moving toward the establishment of Palestine, with Abbas the star of the show. How the Palestinians' situation has improved, Sha'ath marvels. The Palestinians have really made it, he enthuses. Just look at that flag flying outside their hotel.