Finger-tapping on the way to Annapolis

What was initially a lending hand is turning into a hand that shoves.

Olmert Abbas 224.88 (photo credit: GPO [archive])
Olmert Abbas 224.88
(photo credit: GPO [archive])
Everybody in Israel, it seems, fears that Ehud Olmert will come back from Annapolis empty-handed: Half the country is worried he will return from the summit with no real achievements and the other half is scared he'll come back having handed over at least part of Jerusalem. Indeed, "If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning" is beginning to sound more like a battle cry than a prayer. You can count on the fingers of one hand the reasons why the prime minister should go to Annapolis at the end of the month - and you could do it while sucking your thumb for comfort if you are so inclined. The political Left never tires (despite ample opportunity) of pointing out that nothing ventured, nothing gained. On the other hand, as it were, the Righties say nothing offered, nothing lost - there is no gain without pain, or in Olmert's own words: "painful concessions." The Left offers the argument that this time Israel has a willing partner in Mahmoud Abbas. The fingerprints he leaves on the road map are his own, not the same as Yasser Arafat's sticky fingers. The Right is concerned that Abbas is not even relevant to half the people he is meant to represent and his hands are not exactly clean, either. Not so long ago, even Olmert's government was arguing that he was not a trustworthy partner. And Abbas has as much trouble getting a meeting with Hamas off the ground in his home territory as the Americans are having in convening willing participants for the Annapolis parley. As the ever-quotable Oscar Wilde once put it: "When liberty comes with hands dabbled in blood, it is hard to shake hands with her." On the Left-hand side, we are told that Abbas backed by an Arab League is a different story from the Abbas without support from bigger brothers. From the Right, we hear that the Arab countries are not being spurred into action by a sudden love of Israel but by the thought of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's finger on The Button. Islamist extremism, after all, threatens the Saudis and Egyptians no less than it does Israel. With their pinkies, the Left point to the preconditions set out by the road map and say that is the direction to go. The Right, metaphorically biting their fingernails in angst, say these basic demands (recognition of Israel, dismantling terror, etc.) have been lauded after every major peace accord or minor summit meeting and so far have never come to fruition. They are not about to freeze or dismantle settlements and place land in the open and waiting palms of the Palestinians. THE WASHINGTON administration's supporters of Annapolis are clapping their hands, perhaps not enthusiastically, but in that rhythmic way which indicates that the show that is running late is finally going to start. In Israel, with Left and Right so at odds, the clapping is about as audible as that of the Buddhist riddle. This is the sound the clap of one hand makes. You can't exactly put your finger on it, but there is an uneasy feeling about the summit. When you pray for something and then find it wasn't what you thought it would be the feeling is worse than not having your prayers answered. The mythical Midas had a golden touch, after all, and much good it did him. Why President George W. Bush, the PA's Abbas and Prime Minister Olmert are willing to shake hands is clear: They all need a boost in the popularity polls and are unlikely to find it in their current domestic policies. But there are those in Israel whose hands tremble at the thought of what "success" at the peace parley might entail and (even worse) what would be the results of "failure." In the wake of the Oslo Accords, and the failed Camp David meeting of 2000, Israel was left counting its dead. The idea of deadline dates, with all the extra heavy-handed pressure implied, leaves many wondering what will be the cost this time but in no doubt at all about who will pay the price. Disengagement from Gaza, which received fairly broad backing in Israel and looked for a while like a positive - giant - step on the road to peace if not the road map, also failed to deliver anything other than a barrage of Kassams on an even wider area of the Negev. Diplomatic prodding might look gentle, but any touch on a raw nerve can result in excruciating pain. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, notching up frequent flyer points if not many successes, was back in the region a week ago. She didn't exactly point an accusatory finger, but nonetheless the tips of the nails on her outstretched hand left their mark. There is no doubt that the Bush administration wants - or more precisely, needs - the summit meeting to succeed. What was initially a lending hand is turning into a hand that shoves. Similarly, Quartet envoy Tony Blair, on a whirlwind visit, told Jerusalem Post editor-in-chief David Horovitz that Israel must make a "psychological shift" from indifference and skepticism about the prospects of progress with the Palestinians to an active determination to "make it happen on the right terms." He's got a point: Half the country wants to reach out and hold hands with the Palestinians - although wary of where this will lead them - while the other half prefers to stand strong with arms folded emitting a definite "Hands off!" message. Even Blair, with his "reach out and touch" approach questioned whether the Palestinians were prepared to "shoulder the responsibility." Olmert for the first time - at least openly - is talking about the possibility of achieving significant steps toward peace with the Palestinians before Bush leaves office in January 2009. He addressed the prestigious Saban Forum in Jerusalem on November 4, saying: "If we and the Palestinians act with determination, there is a chance that we can achieve real accomplishments during the Bush presidency. There is no intention of dragging the negotiations on endlessly." Olmert, by the way, was noticeably absent from the once-prestigious Israel (Sderot) Conference in the besieged southern town a few days later. In what is being seen as a trial balloon of the type Olmert himself used to float for Ariel Sharon, Vice Premier Haim Ramon said the premier will present any peace deal formulated at the Annapolis peace summit to the Israeli people for approval. It is easy to predict that the Right will give him the proverbial finger while the Left will clap (with both hands). In fact, it is all so predictable that (sorry for the cynicism, Tony) as the date for Annapolis approaches, the question remains, why the rush? Perhaps the various leaders should just let their fingers do the walking: Pick up the phone and talk. They are unlikely at this stage to be handing each other the diplomatic success that has so far slipped through their fingers.