Diplomacy: Filling the vacuum

The 3-way summit ended the way it began - with little drama, few declarations and no developments.

rice, abbas, olmert 298. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
rice, abbas, olmert 298.
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Unlike summits past, there was no palpable sense of excitement at Jerusalem's David Citadel Hotel this week during the trilateral meeting between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. As reporters and advisers to the three leaders waited in the cavernous ballroom floor of the hotel, there was no overblown, Oslo-like sense of "feeling the flutter of history's wings." There was no expectation, no sense of moment, no anticipation of great diplomatic drama. As a result, nobody was really disappointed that following nearly two-and-a-half hours of meetings, Rice briskly walked into a flagless, partitioned section of the hotel's main ballroom, gave a vacuous 90-second declaration and unceremoniously left, taking no questions. No one had expected anything more. Which doesn't mean the summit was a complete flop. What it means is that a cold bucket of realism seems to have been tossed onto the Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic process. What it means is that there is a growing realization that not every impasse can be broken in disengagement-like fell swoops, not all deadlocks solved by wholesale Israeli confidence-building gestures. What it means is that sometimes you just have to wait and see what develops before deciding how to move on. "You have to deal with the cards on the table," a US diplomat said downstairs in the ballroom waiting for Rice's statement, as she, Olmert and Abbas were still upstairs holding their discussions in her suite. "And that is what we are trying to do." Considering the cards, that is no easy task. Especially since the dominant cards are Hamas's refusal to recognize Israel, renounce violence and accept previous agreements, and Israel's - and the Quartet's - refusal to deal with the PA until it does so. Which forces the question: In a situation like this, what do you do? The reply from the summit was clear: You keep talking with whom you can, about what you can, until the cards are possibly reshuffled and better hands are dealt. Don't forget that things are fluid, Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz, who heads Israel's team in its strategic dialogue with the US, told The Jerusalem Post this week. Mofaz, who served as defense minister and chief of General Staff, takes a long view of the situation. "The Palestinians have not had their final say," he said of the Mecca agreements between Hamas and Fatah that threw a major wrench into this week's trilateral meeting. He said the internal struggle in the PA would likely continue even after a unity government was set up, and it would be a struggle in which not only Iran, but also Egypt and Saudi Arabia, will have a say. As such, he implied, there were still levers of influence, adding that Hamas was not immune to influence and that its decision to agree to the Mecca agreements was a result of the pressure it has felt. It is in anticipation that the balance of power in the PA has not yet been firmly established that Olmert is going ahead and continuing to talk with Abbas. OLMERT MADE clear at a press conference two days after the trilateral meeting that Israel would not be able to accept any PA government that doesn't explicitly accept the principles of the Quartet. But at the same time he said that both he and his staff would keep meeting Abbas and his staff, "hoping to create the necessary environment that will be helpful for the relations between us and them." True, Abbas may not be able to deliver anything today, but this logic holds that he might be able to do so tomorrow, and since there is no other real channel of communication, what harm could be done by continuing to talk with him? Rice, in a briefing for the traveling US press, also explained the rationale of continuing talks with Abbas, in spite of the Hamas-Fatah agreement in Mecca. She divided the PA into three different entities: the Palestinian Legislative Council, controlled by Hamas; the PA government, also controlled by Hamas; and the presidential administration, headed by Abbas. The summit demonstrated that both the US and Israel want to deal with the third entity for as long as they can, in the hope that it will eventually bring about a change in the other two. If it does, great; if not, then the feeling is that there was nothing lost in trying. But this, Olmert said this week, must be done with eyes wide open and with little illusion about what Abbas can and cannot deliver. To a question at his press conference as to why Israel didn't just sit down with Abbas, as it did in 1993 with the PLO's then head Yasser Arafat, and negotiate a deal, Olmert replied: "What you suggest is that we will be talking as if the 13 years or 14 years that passed since the Oslo Agreement did not exist, and that we will go back into 1993. But we live in 2007, and there is a certain reality in 2007, and the only way to deal with this reality is to look into its eyes openly and seriously and to deal with it." Olmert said that he wanted to continue the link with Abbas in the hope "that one day, perhaps, the promise of this dialogue will be stronger than the fears and the threats and the hatred and the viciousness of Hamas and its supporters." One day. But this is not the situation now. Now, he said, he remained committed to the two-state solution, but the way that this would be brought about would depend on circumstances. "I hope that the circumstances will allow us to reach an agreement with a Palestinian government that will recognize the Quartet principles and will accept the right of Israel to exist as an independent state." But until the circumstances change and allow for that, Olmert - whom a senior US official characterized as "tough" during his meeting with Abbas - said that little should be asked of or expected of Israel. His message was clear, until these circumstances change, the Palestinians will have to sleep in the bed they made. The idea for Monday's trilateral summit was hatched during Rice's last visit here in January and was aimed, essentially, at trying to give the Palestinians a sense of what the future could hold if they just made the "right choices" and opted for the moderates over the extremists. Rice, seemingly under the influence of Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, bought into the idea that since it has proven impossible to navigate through the land mine filled Israeli-Palestinian terrain using just the road map, what needed to be done was give the Palestinians a broad sense of what their future state on the hill could look like. And once the Palestinians saw this image, they would build a bridge, or put together a government, that would get them over the land mines and onto that hill. Then Mecca intervened, and all of a sudden it appeared that, yet again, the bridge came crumbling down. Rice, Olmert and Abbas in Jerusalem on Monday sent a message that the bridge has not yet fallen down, that one of its three columns remains shaky but standing and that it needed to be reinforced while attempts were being made - but by no means assured - to reconstruct the other pillars.