|In a world in which "spin" often means more than the substance of the matter, a rather dramatic story was woven by the Israeli media around the recent visit by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (on her way to the Arab Summit in Riyadh). She had reportedly planned a grand announcement, launching direct or indirect Israeli-Palestinian talks on the permanent status issues—Jerusalem, borders, refugees—only to be forced to abandon it, after prolonged and tense talks with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, when the latter made clear his objections to this course of action. The dramatic buzz prior to her visit was replaced by what the leader of the left-wing opposition, MK Yossi Beilin of Meretz, called a "hollow" press conference; and more than one commentator in Israel used the phrase "the mountain gave birth to a mouse."
There is more than a dose of hype in all of this—as well as political and ideological undercurrents of dissatisfaction with Olmert's performance. On the right, the settler community fears further Israeli concessions—and has began a campaign, including provocative actions in Hebron and on the ruins of Homesh in northern Samaria, to indicate that they will resist them. On the left, there is suspicion that Olmert is simply seeking to avoid painful decisions. Beilin is not alone in this respect. Some key ministers, including the Labor Party's leader, Defense Minister Amir Peretz, as well as one of Olmert's challengers for the leadership of his Kadima Party, Minister of Housing Meir Sheetrit, have openly called for a more proactive policy and for negotiations based on the Saudi Initiative. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni is rumored to have encouraged Rice's interest in jumping over the early stages of the Road Map and creating a framework for talks on Stage III questions, thus defining the "political horizon" both sides could aspire to (and then implement in carefully designed stages). Thus, Olmert is portrayed as having thwarted a potential breakthrough.
Did he? There was certainly some daylight between the U.S. and Israeli positions at the beginning of the visit. While Israel fully shares the American wish to consolidate the "new paradigm" in the Middle East—an array of pragmatic states facing the radical challenge led by Iran—there are, understandably, differences of perspective and priorities. Some of the difficulties may have arisen, moreover, because the unique channel of communication once established between former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his trusted envoy, Dov Weisglass, on one hand, and Bush and Rice, on the other, is no longer there to help smooth things over. But, at the end of the day, it was not this or that aspect of U.S.-Israeli relations, but rather the broader realities in the region, which undid the hopes that originally attended the visit:
- To begin with, the Palestinian leadership is clearly unwilling, or unable, to deliver. The fact that President Mahmoud Abbas reneged on his solemn promise that Gilad Shalit would be freed once the Palestinian unity government was established did not only aggrieve the Israeli side, for whom the ongoing ordeal of this young man has become a family matter; it also sent a worrisome signal as to his standing and impact within his own society. It was, therefore, not an excuse but a real concern that Olmert put before Rice, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, and others: It would be a dangerous exercise in futility to put on the table questions of existential import for Israel's future, only to find at the end of the road that whatever was agreed upon could not be implemented, but merely served as a point of departure for further demands by the dominant radical elements. This was the reason for the staged structure of the Road Map; and only a much more robust performance by Abbas could induce a wary and divided Israeli government to abandon it and leap into the unknown.
- Moreover, the U.S. and the international Quartet were not well positioned to prod Israel on the so-called Saudi Initiative, insofar as the Saudis themselves balked at breaking ranks with the "Arab collective will," represented by the 2002 Beirut modifications of their original ideas. American calls for a more pragmatic message went unanswered. Well in advance of the Riyadh Summit, it became clear that the Arab League as an institution, typically overriding the more moderate views of some of its own members, would neither consent to any softening of the language on "the right of return" nor condone an overt warming of Arab-Israeli relations. Syria would be there to serve as an anchor for the inflexible position, which effectively rules out real negotiations (other than technical discussions as to how, not whether, Arab demands can be met). Under these circumstances, advocates of a dramatic gesture at this stage had little to support their position. There was, in other words, no real "mountain" that Rice could realistically point to.
Nor was it a mere "mouse" that emerged. Rice did announce that regular consultations will be held from now on between the two leaders. Given current realities—the present nature of the Palestinian government; the continued captivity of Shalit; the steady "drizzle" of Qassam rockets on the northern Negev (luckily, in recent weeks, with no loss of life or limb and little damage); and above all, the Hamas military build-up in Gaza, which some Israeli commanders would like to preempt forcefully and soon—it is no trivial matter for any Israeli leader, let alone a highly unpopular prime minister, besieged by stories of scandal and presiding over a large but unwieldy coalition, to agree to hold biweekly meetings with Abbas and to commit to an extensive effort to solve the problems of daily life for the Palestinian population. It is, after all, at this basic level that relations between the two peoples are molded.
Just a day ago, this fundamental truth was demonstrated in heart-wrenching fashion, when a long-neglected dam in a sewage treatment facility in northern Gaza broke due to heavy rains, and the flood of refuse destroyed a makeshift Bedouin village downstream and claimed several lives. Long before we negotiate how to partition the land, reconcile claims to Jerusalem, solve the refugee problem, and put the conflict behind us, there must be a way to fund the necessary infrastructure that would prevent such human tragedies. Perhaps the regular meetings with Abbas could enable Israel and the Quartet to work directly with constructive elements within the Palestinian government (including the finance minister, Salam Fayyad, whose views certainly differ from those of his Hamas colleagues in Isma'il Haniya's cabinet) on matters that may not move historical mountains, but loom larger than mice in the minds of ordinary people on both sides of the divide.