Ending the occupation and creating peace is within our reach.
By GERSHON BASKIN
The long-overdue Olmert-Abbas meeting, which finally took place eight months after Ehud Olmert's government was sworn in, was a positive step but hardly sufficient to resume a peace process between Israel and the Palestinians.
Olmert, to his credit, had tried for months to convene the meeting with Abbas. It has been Abbas who has been reluctant, both out of concern that he would leave the meeting empty-handed, and that Olmert would present him with a list of demands he could not deliver.
Abbas cannot release Gilad Shalit, does not control the Hamas-led government or parliament, and cannot prevent the Kassam rockets attacks from Gaza.
So why now? Perhaps there was a sense that since Abbas's calls for early elections there has been a need to strengthen the position of the moderates.
President George Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have let Olmert know that he needs to take the initiative to strengthen Abbas, including releasing revenues being withheld by Israel.
It is quite clear that the release of Palestinian political prisoners would strengthen the moderates, and we can be quite sure that Abbas raised the issue of Marwan Barghouti with Olmert.
Abbas has not yet set a date for early elections, in which Hamas continues to state it will not participate.
Palestinian infighting continues despite attempts to reach understandings that would prevent civil war.
Abbas's call for early elections has renewed attempts to reach a national unity government, but it seems very unlikely that these talks will succeed. The public statements made by various Hamas leaders, including the prime minister, demonstrate that there is no willingness or ability in Hamas to even come close to meeting the Quartet's demands.
Abbas's attempts to finesse and fudge the demands by using all kinds of implicit understandings concerning the recognition of Israel are still too far from the Hamas ideology to enable it to join a unity government with Fatah.
IN ORDER for Abbas to make good on his call for early elections he has a lot of work to do within Fatah. His own political movement is still perceived by the public as corrupt, non-democratic and controlled by ancient "revolutionaries" who should have been retired years ago. For Fatah to have any real chance of succeeding in future elections deep reforms will have to take place.
People like Barghouti could play a real role in reviving Fatah. At least three ministers in the Olmert government have said to me in private meetings that the release of Barghouti is not a question of "if," but of "when." In response to that question, I would say now is the time.
IT IS also time to recognize that, despite the genuine need to rebuild trust, the more urgent necessity is to address the real issues in conflict.
The future of the Israeli-Palestinian relationship is not based on good-will gestures. Olmert seems to have been very generous in agreeing to release $100m. to Abbas, but there are about $700m. of Palestinian money being withheld by Israel. Israel continues to control almost every aspect of Palestinian life. Movement and access agreements have not been implemented and Palestinians cannot move freely, even within the confines of their own territories.
The Gush Katif settlers used to produce more than $100m. a year in fresh produce, yet the Palestinians lost about $25m. last year because they could not export their produce because of Israeli closures. These are all symptoms of the continuation of the Israeli occupation.
June 5, 2007 will mark 40 years of occupation. It seems that Olmert would, at least in principle, like the occupation to end. That and creating Israeli-Palestinian peace is not a pipe dream but a real possibility, despite all the setbacks and failures during the past 13 years.
Since the recognition of Israel by Yasser Arafat already in 1988, the root cause of the conflict has been the continuation of the occupation. It is easy to blame the Palestinians for the failures of the peace processes until now, as they too are responsible because of their continued reliance on violence instead of diplomacy.
However, we must also recognize that if it was us under occupation, we too would not accept being denied our freedom for 40 years,and would use every means possible to secure it.
FOLLOWING the Olmert-Abbas meeting, Olmert stated that he hoped its positive nature would lead to a renewal of a political process that would advance the common agenda that is in the interests of both sides. It is now time for Olmert to declare that the goal of the political process is to end the occupation and create Israeli-Palestinian peace.
At the same time, Olmert should announce that unilateralism is not the way forward and that all future steps will be taken within the framework of direct bilateral Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Within six months it should be possible for Olmert and Abbas to reach agreement on a Declaration of Principles regarding ending the occupation, and on Israeli-Palestinian peace.
Political progress is what Abbas needs to take to the Palestinian public in elections, not an Israeli gesture of $100m. of Palestinian money. Photo-ops will not advance peace; moving toward the end of the occupation will.
Both Olmert and Abbas present themselves as serious leaders. It is time for them to get serious about leading.
The writer is the Co-CEO of IPCRI, the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information (www.ipcri.org)
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