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Return of the Partner

Akiva Eldar; Ha'aretz , 23.06.06

If Ariel Sharon had awoken from his coma yesterday and seen a picture of his heir to the throne having a cup of coffee with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), he would probably have rubbed his eyes and fired off one of the venomous remarks he saved for those involved in insurrection.

Sharon invested the best of his final years in politics in selling the idea that the PA has been eliminated as a partner to the disengagement plan, and here Ehud Olmert is going as far as Petra to shake hands with the Palestinian chairman. It's worth looking closely at this picture: it could be the first one in the next act of the Israeli-Palestinian dialogue. If all goes well, it should be called "The return of the partner." Or maybe: "There is a border." A temporary one, yes, but still, an agreed-upon border.

The Prime Minister's Office told reporters that Olmert was not planning a political discussion with Abu Mazen, and explained that it's not polite to reject a royal invitation. Justice Minister Haim Ramon, who is developing the convergence plan behind the scenes (and behind the backs of other ministers), promises that all Olmert's talk about negotiations with the Palestinians over the convergence is intended to silence arguments against unilateral steps. Indeed, where is the team that Olmert promised to appoint to prepare for talks with Abu Mazen's aides? There is no team, but there are preparations for talks, and even an agenda. Everything is waiting for the results of talks between Fatah and Hamas on the so-called prisoners' document.

The National Security Council and the Foreign Ministry are developing the idea for the overall plan, based on several working assumptions:

1. The prime minister is determined to evacuate all the settlements east of the separation fence during his current term of office and to separate from the Palestinian population.

2. The gap between the two sides and the situation in the PA do not allow for a permanent agreement in the foreseeable future.

3. A unilateral evacuation of settlers will strengthen the radical elements of Palestinian society, weaken Israeli public support and encounter reservations from the international community.

4. Israel has an interest in strengthening the pragmatic Palestinian camp, which supports the diplomatic option.

5. The road map is the one and only political plan accepted by the major players in the region and the international community.

6. It is not currently possible for the first phase of the road map to be carried out perfectly (dismantling terror infrastructure), and it's not realistic to expect to go directly to the third phase (including resolution of the Jerusalem problem and the refugees).

7. The second phase of the road map - an independent Palestinian state with temporary borders, involving a discussion process between Israel and the Palestinians - is the sole formula that could win support from the Israeli public and the world, strengthen Abu Mazen's position and maybe even return Fatah to power. According to the road map, the Quartet (the United Nations, European Union, United States and Russia) is due to convene an international convention to monitor the implementation of the second stage and even to welcome international recognition of a Palestinian state, including possible membership in the United Nations.

If Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh doesn't twist Abu Mazen's arm and lead him into a unity government, it will not be long before Abu Mazen is invited for talks to coordinate the establishment of a Palestinian state within temporary borders. Not negotiations on the fence route, but a dialogue regarding the orderly transferal of the Gaza Strip and 90 percent of the West Bank to Palestinian control. King Abdullah, who hosted the meeting, has shown a keen appetite for the possibility of a deal between the two guests.

The Jordanian request that the European Union stop pressuring Israel to get rid of its segregationist policy in the Jordan Valley (restrictions on Palestinian entry), is indicative of the king's fear that Hamas will come too close to the borders of the Hashemite kingdom and join up with the local Muslim Brotherhood branch. The visit by four Jordanian members of parliament to the mourning tent of the Al-Zarqawi family in Zarqa made the palace residents' blood boil. This is the same terrorist leader who sent his people to carry out terror attacks in the heart of Amman.

Abbas' life jacket

Olmert has already learned - in his previous visit to Jordan and in his visits to the United States, Egypt and Europe - that Abu Mazen is universally thought of as the boy whose finger in the dike is preventing fundamentalist Islam from flooding out. The prime minister has also come to discover that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and British Prime Minister Tony Blair can distinguish between a genuine attempt to reach an agreement and a staged performance. There is a risk that even U.S. President George W. Bush will realize that criticizing the Palestinian failure to fight terror, as Sharon used to do in meetings with Abu Mazen, is not considered "negotiations."

Let alone Defense Minister Amir Peretz understands a thing or two about negotiations. How long will the Labor Party chairman agree to serve as the lightning rod for his neighbors from Sderot? Peretz has already said in private conversation that he knows there is no military solution to the Qassam fire and that he does not have the key to a diplomatic solution, but what can he do? You can't have elections every two months.

Surprisingly, the head of the Defense Ministry's political-security department, Amos Gilad - the one who in the last few years has preached the elimination of PA - now supports tossing Abu Mazen a life jacket by coordinating the convergence with him and forging an agreement on the establishment of a Palestinian state within temporary borders. Defense officials were horrified to hear that Olmert is seriously considering not only moving the settlers west of the fence, but also taking the Israel Defense Forces and the Shin Bet security service out of the territories. They don't need to explain to the policymaker what the residents of Kfar Sava can expect the day after disengagement plan 2 is implemented. The residents of Sderot talk about it every night on TV.

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni will not have a problem marketing the coordinated temporary state plan in the world capitals. Livni does not hide her opinion that it would be a grave mistake to get out of the West Bank and "throw away the key" (an expression used by the former Civil Administration head in the West Bank, Ilan Paz). One can understand the comments as a criticism of the way in which Sharon led the disengagement from the Gaza Strip. This week, in a meeting with guests from the United States, Livni explained at length that a Palestinian state is of crucial interest for everyone who believes in the importance of the State of Israel as the national home of the Jewish people and as a democratic state. The foreign minister said that time, and the conflict, are working against Israel, which is increasingly losing its legitimacy in the world as a Jewish state.

A short path

From here it was a short path to Livni's decision to see Abu Mazen - a Palestinian leader who has repeated his commitment to the two-state model - as a desirable partner for an agreement. Today, for an agreement on temporary borders, and tomorrow, perhaps, for a permanent agreement. Livni understands that only such an arrangement can grant a practical significance to the letter that Bush gave Sharon two years ago about the settlement blocs and resolution of the refugee problem outside of the "right of return" framework, which Livni considers anathema. That's why Livni got angry at European Union leaders this week for thawing the freeze on donations to the territories. She would not accept the argument that the financial pressure strengthens the Hamas government's position and keeps Abu Mazen from playing a decisive role.

Officially and publicly, Abu Mazen and his people are careful to reject the idea of temporary borders and emphasize that the road map describes the establishment of a state within such borders only as an "option." Just as Israelis suspect the Palestinians will turn any permanent agreement into a temporary one, the Palestinians know that for the Israelis, there is nothing more permanent than a temporary arrangement. Nonetheless, since Haaretz has reported on the new idea, members of the defeated Fatah establishment have been discussing the issue seriously. If the international community ensures the linkage to a final-status agreement, one of them said, there is something to talk about. The big question is how long the tired boy will be able to keep his finger in the dike. The Palestinian constitution states that if the chairman has a stroke, heaven forbid, he will be replaced by the head of the Palestinian Legislative Council, a Hamas leader - quite a fitting image for the opening of a new act in the tragedy.