Tel Aviv (AsiaNews) Tuesday, 23 May, has been most important day yet in Israel's Prime Minister Olmert's political career thus far. Between one-on-one meetings, a dinner and meetings with officials, he was privileged to spend some six hours with U.S. President George W. Bush. Some of their time was, of course, given to the dangers from Iran's nuclear ambitions, and to other matters of common interest, but at the centre of the talks was Israel's continued military occupation of the Palestinian Territories, and the hopes - in the region and in the whole world - for an Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty, which should end both the occupation and the larger conflict. While not many details of the talks have been publicly disclosed, it appears that, for now, Prime Minister Olmert is free to proceed with his much announced plan for a "unilateral resolution" of the conflict. Without mentioning the actual plan, the White House praised the Prime Minister's ideas as courageous and innovative. It only asked for a few more months of an apparently pro-forma effort to try for negotiations with Mahmud Abbas, the President of both the P.L.O. and of the Palestinian National Authority. These are to be only "pro-forma" efforts, since Israel's position is that, to qualify as a partner in peace negotiations, President Abbas must first suppress the Palestinian armed organisations (as Palestinians calls them) or terrorist groups, in accordance with the "Road Map." It was always difficult to imagine how any Palestinian leader could undertake this while the Territories were still under occupation - and without a clear promise of freedom to follow the bout of internal repression - without causing a Palestinian civil war, and it is probably even physically impossible now, that the President shares power with a government formed by the more militant Islamic party, Hamas.
Israel's unilateral plan calls for the annexation to Israel of parts of the Occupied Palestinian Territory of the West Bank; for the transfer of the settlers who live elsewhere to those newly annexed areas; for the completion of the "Wall of Separation" between Israel and the annexed areas, on the one side, and what is left of the West Bank, on the other side; and for the Israeli army to continue to control the Jordan Valley, as well as possibly the whole area between the Valley and the Wall. So apart from moving a few settlements within the Occupied Territory, nothing much is expected to happen at all.
It is still possible - nothing has been said about this officially - that the Israeli Army itself will withdraw from the territory between the Valley (in the east) and the Wall (in the west), but in this case, what will be left in between may very quickly become a no-man's land, a cauldron of fratricidal conflict and endemic instability, where citizens and families will simply be at the mercy of armed gangs of all descriptions. What is already happening in Gaza serves as a warning of what may yet happen in the West Bank. This scenario is frightening to the Jordanian monarchy, to which the internal conflict and instability may very easily spread, across the River Jordan. Indeed, Jordan's King Abdallah II sent an urgent message to President Bush, on the eve of the President's meeting with the Israel Prime Minister, imploring the President to reject any such "unilateral" move by Israel.
In Israel itself the debate is fierce, although the most explicit opponents of "unilateralism" appear to be few and on the "far left." Most Israeli politicians and voters, left and right, appear to be convinced that there is no prospect of a peace treaty - one that Israeli would want - and that a combination of annexation and withdrawal, coupled with a completed Wall, are Israel's best hopes of not having to worry about the Palestinians any more.
Why the U.S. is choosing to support this, or to allow Israelis to think that it supports this, is a more complex matter. The President's standing in the public opinion polls is very, very weak. His Republican party is divided and fearful of the November congressional elections. Neither the President nor Congress have any appetite for a confrontation with the strong "pro-Israel" lobby. And the President, his Administration, and Congress, are really disappointed with the victory of Hamas in the recent Palestinian Authority elections, and no one in the U.S. (or in most of Europe) has the patience to make the necessary distinctions between Hamas (which is just one organisation), the Palestinian Authority (which is just a temporary agency for managing daily life in part of the Occupied Territories, while waiting for a peace treaty) and the P.L.O. (which is the internationally recognised representative of the Palestinian people, the signatory of international agreements, and the partner in the future peace negotiations).
And, of course, there are those in Israel, in the U.S., and in Europe, who are hoping that Israeli and international sanctions now in place (mostly, denial of aid, and the blocking by Israel of money it collects as taxes belonging to the Palestinian Authority) will actually cause the Hamas-led government of the Palestinian Authority to collapse, so as to be replaced once more by Mr. Abbas's Fatah Party. These hopes have been defined as unrealistic by the Israeli Armed Forces Chief of General Staff. Speaking to the parliamentary defence committee on Sunday, General Haloutz stated that he did not believe that the pressures put on the Hamas-led government will bring about its collapse, but that he did rather believe that these sanctions and pressures - and the consequent suffering of the Palestinian population - will cause greater militancy among Palestinians, moving them to support their elected government ever more strongly. In this the Chief of Staff showed himself in profound disagreement with the rationale for the policies of his civilian superiors, but there has been no public answer to his statements from the politicians.There are those among the Palestinians who are calling on President Abbas to resign as President of the Palestinian Authority, and to keep only the post of President of the P.L.O.. This would no doubt be a brilliant move, which would divorce Mr. Abbas's call for peace talks - routinely turned down by Israel, as it was in Sharm el-Sheikh, at the beginning of the week - from the chaos and violence under the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority. But Mr. Abbas, a cautious man, has not yet had the courage to do this - and may never have.