Analyze This: Real progress, or more shadows on the wall?

Rice, Olmert and Abbas all claim deal could be only months away.

On Sunday, when the cabinet decided to hold a special session in a natural setting in order to raise environmental awareness, it chose the ancient burial cave in Beit She'arim national park that was once the meeting place of the Sanhedrin, the august rabbinical body that led the Jewish people during the Roman era. There is, though, another association involving caves and the ancient world that the Olmert government would do well to consider - the story of "Plato's cave." This is the allegory told by Socrates in Plato's The Republic, which describes a group of people chained from birth inside a candle-lit cavern, whose view of reality is so blinkered they perceive the images of their own shadows on the wall in front of them, and the sounds of their own echoes, as the sum-total reality of the entire universe. The point that Plato is making is of course the problem that all of us might be living in some kind of "cave," unable to gauge the authenticity of the images and words right in front of us. Take, for example, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's visit to Israel intended to assess and push forward the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. When asked by reporters at the end of her trip about the prospect of concluding a deal between the sides by the end of this year, Rice responded, "I have to say I find very impressive the work that is being done, and the seriousness of the process, and I think it's all moving in the right direction... I fully believe it is a goal we can reach." Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas concurred, saying "I am confident, God willing, we will reach a comprehensive peace in 2008." And Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, though more cautious, also said yesterday: "The peace talks are being conducted seriously. We will do all we can to reach an understanding in 2008 which will define the two-state solution." If we concede at least the sincerity of the parties making those statements - and certainly there are those who do not - it must be asked what exactly they are seeing and hearing in their own "cave," the closed rooms in which the negotiations are taking place, that make them this optimistic. An even more important question is whether it has any correspondence to the reality of the outside world. It certainly didn't look that way just hours after Rice had departed, with a Palestinian terrorist shot dead after trying to stab two Israelis in Judea and Samaria, the government approving new construction over the Green Line in the Jerusalem area, Shas demanding even more building there as a price for staying in the government, Peace Now declaring that the "settlement freeze" is dead, and the settlement leadership announcing that even if it isn't, they would build up their communities anyway. Rice, when asked about the ongoing dispute about construction over the 1967 lines, responded: "It's my very strong view that the best thing we can do is to focus on getting this [peace] agreement, because then we won't have the discussions about what belongs in Israel and what belongs in Palestine." That comment perhaps gives some hint about where the priorities are right now in the negotiations, and where there is most likely to have been any progress, if that is indeed the case. The status of Jerusalem, especially the Temple Mount, and the issue of the so-called "right of return" for Palestinian refugees of 1948, are considered the two core issues most difficult to resolve. Less so has been the overall territorial issue, i.e. where to draw the border lines outside of the ancient heart of Jerusalem. Israel has always rejected on principle a total return to the '67 borders (the 1949 armistice lines), while the Palestinians and the broader Arab world have insisted on it. In the famous letter then-prime minister Ariel Sharon received in April 2004 from President George W. Bush, the US came down definitively on the Israeli side, declaring, "it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final-status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949, and all previous efforts to negotiate a two-state solution have reached the same conclusion." That reference to "previous efforts" alludes to the Clinton Camp David summit, where it has been reported Yasser Arafat was willing to accept some changes along the Green Line provided that the territory was made up elsewhere along the future border between the two states. There was talk of making such territorial exchanges on a so-called 1:1 basis - that is, Israel would compensate the Palestinians for each square meter of territory over the '67 borders it would keep - and actual areas in the southern Judean desert were discussed. None of this, though, nor any issue at Camp David, ever reached a formal stage of agreement - even in principle. If Olmert and Abbas could in fact reach such an agreement - even without specifying the territory involved, and certainly not in the heart of Jerusalem - that would by itself be sufficient to satisfy Rice's desire to have some kind of Declaration of Principles by the sides ready to present on the occasion of Bush's scheduled visit here in May. For Olmert, such a step would help relieve the pressures being put on him by Shas to prove that he is not planning to completely abandon all Israeli communities over the Green Line. For Abbas, this would be a harder sell, since the idea contradicts the Arab Peace Plan that calls for Israel's total return to the specific '67 lines. But the PA president could at least argue he would not be sacrificing even one meter of ground in total. He would also be able to cite the precedent of Israel's peace agreement with Jordan, in which such a territorial arrangement was included in a very small scale in the Arava Valley, as well as Arafat's own reported willingness to consider such an arrangement in the West Bank. All this is speculation, although there have in fact been rumors to the effect that the talks have run in this direction. Even if this was the case, though, and would give the appearance of movement toward a final-status agreement, it in fact would represent very little progress toward resolving the thorniest problems at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as well as the more recent twist of the Hamas takeover of Gaza. If there really is progress being made between the two sides, the most concrete manifestations can be found in the easing of Israeli military restrictions for Palestinian civilians, concurrent with reported improvements in the conduct of the PA security apparatus in such places in Jenin. Those are indeed encouraging steps, small as they may be for now. As for the claims that the negotiations are moving forward, and there is still cause to believe a peace agreement will be reached by 2009 - even a "shelf agreement" that can be implemented at a later date - as of now those are still shadows on a wall, only seen by those deep in a cave of their own making.