An empty gesture

The resumption of high-level dialogue between the Bush administration and the Palestinian Authority represents a visible change in American diplomacy, which has all but ignored the PA in recent months. Nevertheless it is an empty gesture, meant to appease the growing anti-American sentiment in the Arab world and to offset the obvious "tilt" of President George W. Bush in support of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. No meaningful results can be expected from the meetings between the Palestinian premier, Ahmed Qurei (Abu Ala) and senior American officials. They should be considered photo-ops, with little content or lasting influence.

Abu Ala is too weak politically to deliver anything, just like the other players in the Israeli-Palestinian-American triangle. Sharon is licking his wounds after his defeat in the Likud referendum over his disengagement plan to remove Israeli settlers from Gaza and the northern West Bank. His plan frozen, Sharon is trying to forge a cabinet majority for an updated version, while waiting for the attorney general’s decision over his possible indictment for bribery. Bush’s war in Iraq has soured, and he is facing a neck-to-neck reelection race, where Jewish votes and contributions could play a crucial role.

The "virtue of weakness" has been tried before as a recipe for Middle East peacemaking. It was the basis for Ehud Barak’s daring openings towards Syria and the Palestinians when he was prime minister. The idea was that for politically weak leaders–aging Arab rulers, a coalition-dependent Israeli premier, and an outgoing American president–taking bold decisions could be the best survival strategy. But herein lies the paradox, since the political weakness itself is the barrier to progress. Barak’s gamble failed, and the peace process collapsed into the current Israeli-Palestinian war. In comparison, present-day leaders are even weaker than in 2000.

Abu Ala’s position appears unbearable. Having no real authority, he is totally dependent on PA leader Yassir Arafat. Abu Ala’s job security depends on being a figurehead, a moderate buffer between the boycotted Arafat under house arrest and the rest of the world. Any attempt by Abu Ala to show independence would inevitably be refuted by Arafat, whose strategy is to sit tight and let the Israelis sink in the mud of Gaza and the West Bank until they leave in despair. Obviously, Arafat has no interest in the political and security reforms called for by the roadmap, which would strip him of his power.

Sharon has all but sidestepped Abu Ala. Their proposed meeting, rejected at first by the Palestinians, was put off indefinitely by Sharon following a terror attack in the port of Ashdod in March. Sharon’s unilateral disengagement plan leaves no role for the PA, either before or after Israel’s proposed withdrawal. Israeli officials have also tried to convince the Americans that Abu Ala is useless, hence the need for a unilateral approach to break the deadlock.

The Palestinians have made no real effort to improve their image in America, sensing perhaps that Bush favors Sharon anyway, especially when he craves Jewish electoral support. Moreover, American-Palestinian relations are still clouded by the failure of the PA to catch and punish the killers of three American security guards in Gaza, seven months ago. Last week’s deadly events in Gaza have further exposed the PA’s irrelevance and incompetence. Negotiations for returning the captured body parts of dead Israeli soldiers involved Egypt, the Islamic Jihad and local security chiefs. The PA leadership in Ramallah played virtually no part in the deal, according to Israeli officials.

The Bush administration was surprised by Sharon’s failure in the Likud referendum, but quickly decided to ignore it. The Americans appropriated the plan and tried to sell it to their European and Arab friends, thus preventing Israel from turning back. They viewed Sharon’s loss, and the vacuum it created, as an opportunity to repair their deteriorating relations with the Arabs, following the atrocities at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and Bush’s written promise to support Israel’s positions on borders and refugees in a future final-status deal with the Palestinians. The chosen vehicle was Abu Ala, who was suddenly pulled out of the diplomatic freezer.

The Americans have learned the lessons of their overenthusiastic welcome last year to Abu Ala’s fallen predecessor, Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas). They decided to give Qurei a more lukewarm treatment, and refrained from inviting him to Washington, meeting him instead in Jordan and Germany. According to Israeli sources, Bush’s letter to Abu Ala was full of demands about fighting terrorism and PA reform. Even the most optimistic American officials expressed virtually no expectations from the meetings with him, while the Palestinians wanted mainly to appear relevant to a future negotiated process

Sharon senses the weakness on the other side, and has chosen to dismiss the new American-Palestinian hugfest. Sticking to his unilateral approach, he rejects suggestions to renew negotiations with the PA, and pays only lip service to the roadmap. Sharon’s survival depends on forging a new majority within Likud, and slipping out of indictment. Abu Ala cannot possibly help him on these two fronts.