A chill wind at the summit



Sivan 16, 5765

The meeting between Ariel Sharon and Mahmoud Abbas did indeed seem, as the Palestinians claim, like one between a senior commander and a junior officer who did not carry out his mission as expected, or like one between a landlord and a tenant who did not pay his rent on time.

But in this case, Israel is not the landlord, and the drama that played out on camera at the start of Tuesday's summit was unnecessary. Sharon could have skipped the humiliation and focused on his demands. If he was trying to win the hearts of his voters, he did so at too high a cost. Given the sensitive state of relations between the parties, and after having waited so long for the summit to occur, it is doubtful it was necessary at all. In a situation where there was no diplomatic breakthrough, perhaps it would have been better to hold the talks at a lower level in order to prevent resounding disappointments.

The arrogance broadcast by Israel's representative merely emphasized the weakness of his partner, and served no purpose, even though the demand for an end to the terror is justified. In the end, arrogance will not benefit the Israeli public, which would be better served by a strong and independent interlocutor.

The content of the meeting was less important than the style, as coordination between the Palestinian Authority and Israel is being handled at a lower level - and apparently, fairly successfully. The principal message that Sharon sought to convey to the Palestinians and, even more, to the Israeli public was that Israel will leave the Gaza Strip in any case, since this is a unilateral disengagement that serves Israeli interests, but any additional step that could improve Palestinian life following the withdrawal will depend on halting terror.

It is doubtful Abbas will be capable of providing Israel with security, or even a promise of security, in the foreseeable future; and it is doubtful that Sharon is capable of promising the Palestinians a continuation of the diplomatic process after the withdrawal from Gaza. His political situation does not enable him to make promises. The hope is that the very fact of the withdrawal from Gaza will improve the atmosphere between the parties and set in motion the dynamic of the diplomatic process, and that a withdrawal successfully coordinated with the PA will open the door to a more optimistic next step.

"You're not as weak as you make yourself out to be," Sharon told Abbas, though the Americans' impression is that his weakness is real and the chaos in the Palestinian Authority is substantial. At this interim stage before the disengagement, Israel's goal must be to make life easier for the Palestinians in every area where this will not endanger security. Willingness to begin work on the new Gaza port and reopening the Palestinian airport are examples of practical gestures that would help to strengthen the PA without harming Israel. There is no reason to delay such gestures. There is also no reason to continue building in the settlements, thereby arousing Palestinian doubts about whether Israel really intends to implement the road map afterward.

The suicide bomber who was caught at Erez Checkpoint, who could have shattered everything had she indeed blown herself up in an Israeli hospital, shows just how fragile the situation is and how much goodwill is needed to overcome the problems and move forward with the only plan that is currently on the agenda.