Thursday, December 28, 2006

Op-Ed: Is Abbas-Olmert meeting more than PR? By Mohammed Mar'i, Ramallah

Is Abbas-Olmert meeting more than public relations?
By Mohammed Mar'i

(Permission granted to republish in full. You may also donate a writing fee to the author.)

(Arab AMerican Media Services/Ramllah, Palestine) -- After many months of preparation between senior Israeli and Palestinian aids, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minster Ehud Olmert finally held a meeting.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert insisted on leaving his official residence to welcome President Mahmoud Abbas and his convoy with kisses on cheeks. "It is my pleasure to welcome you, Mr. President," said Olmert to Abbas.

Olmert introduced his wife Aliza, who is an artist known for her dovish views, to Abbas and the Palestinian officials.

The Palestinians were surprised to find the Palestinian flag and the Israeli flag standing side by side in the PM's driveway. The two flags were found together on the table inside the house as well. This is the first time that Palestinian flags were waved inside any official Israeli institution, not to mention the prime minister's residence.

Olmert's men explained that the warm welcome and the Palestinian flags being raised alongside the Israeli flags were meant to prove that there is no patronization on the Israelis' part, and that they were negotiating with Abbas because they truly believe he wants peace and they hope to make him a real partner. In the past, Olmert described Abbas as a weak leader, and Israeli minister Tzipi Livni considered him irrelevant to the peace process.

"Abu Mazen," said Olmert's men, "was welcomed at the prime minister's residence just as any other head of state would be". But apart from the hosting generosity the Israelis show towards their Palestinian guests, with what results the Palestinians went back to Ramallh? Did Olmert agree to a series of concessions to help bolster the PA chairman? Did President Abbas receive dramatic concessions from Olmert or promises to reactivate some committees? Did Olmert reject the key Palestinian demands announced by Abbas?

Olmert has agreed to unfreeze $100 million from the Palestinian National Authority tax revenues to be used for humanitarian purposes and after the establishment of a mechanism to ensure the money is used for the purposes intended by Abbas, and does not end up in the hands of the ruling Islamic militant group Hamas, Olmert also agreed to remove several West Bank checkpoints, and reexamine security procedures at the Karni commercial crossing between Israel and the Gaza Strip, in order to facilitate to movement of goods into Gaza, Olmert promised to meet a quota of 400 trucks moving through the main cargo crossing between Gaza and Israel.

Israel has also agreed in principle to allow Egypt to provide Abbas' security forces with weapons as well as allow the PLO's Badr Brigade to enter the territories. The brigade is currently stationed in Jordan.

But the two leaders failed to reach agreement on key issues - a prisoner swap and to extend the cease fire to the West Bank. Regarding the issue of prisoners which is a high superiority to the Palestinian society, the two sides reactivate a committee to decide the criteria for those who will be released and when. It known for the Palestinians that Olmert can't agree on genuine prisoners deal including those with "blood on their hands" without the release of kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit taking into consideration that Israel launched its military operation "summer Rain" to get him back. The extension of cease fire to the West Bank will achieved before Abbas secures calm in Gaza; to stop the home-made rockets "Qassams".

Accordingly it's hard to understand what Abbas expected to gain by the summit with Olmert since he can't deliver the two things that Israel wants most: a serious undertaking to stop firing "Qassam" rockets and the release of Shalit. Abbas knows also that Olmert might want to bolster him by a few concessions especially a release of Palestinian prisoners, but he knows that the Israeli public will not tolerate this generosity after a summer of costly operations in Lebanon and Gaza. Abbas knows that there will not be a revival of Olmert's "convergence" plan for further withdrawals in the West Bank. Abbas knows that his photo being kissed twice on each cheek by Olmert will not easily replace the photos of Prime Minister Ismail Honeyed with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and with President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad. Abbas Knows that the preconditioned unfreeze of $ 100 million will not be welcomed by the Palestinians as the $ 120 million donated by Iran to Hamas led government. Abbas knows that the absence of concrete achievements from the meeting will embarrass him in his internal crisis. He knows that Hamas, which holds Shalit, will not agree to any concessions in the Shalit deal especially the criteria and names of the Palestinian prisoners to be released. He knows that a cease fire in Gaza will not be achieved without full cooperation of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. He knows that ending of the deportees and wanted fighters files can't be solved without calm in the West Bank.

Many Palestinians questioned the reason behind Abbas acceptance to participate in the meeting.

Taking into consideration that Olmert has no interest in advancing the peace process, and that Abbas can't deliver a unified Palestinian understanding regarding the cease fire and Shalit deal, it seems that the meeting is no more than a public relations one. Under the pressure of US President George W. Bush and British Prime Minster Tony Blair, Abbas participated in the meeting to show moderate leaders in the region and to distance himself from Hamas. Bush and Blair want optimistic pictures rather than those of Iraq and Iran and they got it from the meeting.

(Mohammed Mar'i is a Palestinian journalist based in Ramallah)