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Sharm el Sheikh Conference: Vision versus reality in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

06/25/2007

A realist would have to be really surprised if great things come out of today's Sharm el Sheikh summit between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, Abdullah of Jordan and Mahmud Abbas, President of the Palestinian Authority, or what is left of it.

The conference faces three challenges. The first challenge is helping President Abbas rebuild the Fatah movement and the PLO. The second task is dislodging the Hamas from Gaza, and the third is making peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Of course, these challenges are related. Fateh has demonstrated in the past that it is too chaotic to adhere to the terms of a peace treaty, and it demonstrated in Gaza that it hasn't got a fighting force capable of suppressing the Hamas. As Danny Rubinstein points out, it will probably not be possible to vanquish Hamas without real peace process. As Prime Minister Olmert has demonstrated, his government is incapable of delivering the dismantling of even one illegal outpost, and hist promises of improvements in every day life for Palestinians have proven to be illusory. He would point out in turn, that the checkpoints cannot be relaxed if the Palestinians do not control the security situation. Abbas for his part, did not reform the Fateh in the years since Yasser Arafat died, did not put an end to corruption and did not suppress the different armed factions or integrate them into the Palestinian police, despite repeated pledges to do so.

All in all, it is unlikely that much can come from this conference. It appears that Mr. Abbas is coming with an ambitious shopping list. He wants the release of Marwan Barghouti, a move which will supposedly magically unify all the factions, he wants thousands of guns, and release of hundreds of prisoners besides Barghouti and he wants armored personnel carriers. The last request, for personnel carriers, he will probably get. From Abbas's point of view, he is right. He has nothing to show his people. From the Israeli point of view, it is folly to give the Fateh more guns, after the last batch were captured in short order by the Hamas, and it is politically impossible to release any prisoners while Gilad Shalit is imprisoned in Gaza. Clearly, prisoners releasted to Fateh won't 'count' toward fulfilling demands of Shalit's Hamas-oriented captors.

It appears that Israel already gave the biggest concession it is willing to give, announcing the release of tax money to the Palestinian Authority in advance of the conference. It is also rumored that there might be some promises of relaxation of checkpoints in return for Palestinian security cooperation. Neither of these are going to produce a great wave of confidence in Abbas, and if the money disappears into the usual places, it is not going to help build peace.

A bold and imaginative plan by Condoleezza Rice, to negotiate a peace agreement that would only come into effect if and when Abbas retook the Gaza strip and could impose order, was vetoed by Israel. Olmert is afraid that Israel would be forced to make concessions despite Palestinian non-compliance. From his point of view, Olmert is also right. Israelis are justifiably wary of making concessions after the Oslo accords ended in disaster and the US virtually abandoned Israel. But without such an agreement, without a a clear picture of a peaceful future, there is no basis for moving the two peoples forward along the path of peace.

Inevitably, when Olmert does not meet the PNA demands that were leaked to the press, Abbas will look like a failure. We can therefore surmise that the PNA shopping list was either leaked to pressure Israel, or else it was leaked to make sure that Abbas and the summit would look like failures.

For his part, Olmert took care to lower expectations on the morning of the event:

Olmert also said the meeting was significant because "the entire Arab world will see two very prominent national leaders shaking hands with the head of the Palestinian Authority and the prime minister of the state of Israel, together, expressing a genuine desire to build up a process focusing not on terror, not on hatred, not on rejection, not on fighting each other, but on making peace."

"This is the thrust of this meeting," Olmert added.

In brief, what Olmert is giving Mr. Abbas is a photo opportunity. Those who are familiar with the Palestinian scene, may be justifiably skeptical of the value of Mr. Olmert's handshake to the standing of Mr. Abbas in Palestinian politics.

Ami Isseroff

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Original text copyright by the author and MidEastWeb for Coexistence, RA. Posted at MidEastWeb Middle East Web Log at http://www.mideastweb.org/log/archives/00000601.htm where your intelligent and constructive comments are welcome. Distributed by MEW Newslist. Subscribe by e-mail to mew-subscribe@yahoogroups.com. Please forward by email with this notice and link to and cite this article. Other uses by permission.

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