Pleasing the world

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Whatever the outcome of the upcoming Abbas-Sharon summit, it is not going to yield any fundamental breakthroughs. In fact, the timing of the summit indicates that this is something that has been imposed on both the Palestinians and Israelis by the international community.

Unlike the international community, in particular the US, there is very little reason for either President Mahmoud Abbas or Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to attend a summit. Both sides know that no talks on fundamental issues will be entered into and both are taken up with domestic issues of overriding concern. As such, both sides know that the summit will be merely cosmetic.

Neither side, however, wants to displease an American administration bogged down in Iraq that desperately wants to show progress somewhere in the Middle East, Israel least of all. For his part, Abbas will see his willingness to attend the summit as important to ensure both the flow of international aid and the right atmosphere for his upcoming visit to Washington later this month. As a result, it can be expected that under very limiting circumstances, both sides will try to make the most of a poor deal.

The Palestinian strength will lie in what concessions they can get from the Israeli side before attending the summit, rather than at the summit itself. As such, from the Palestinian side, two categories of issues will be put forward.

The one category will concern movement of goods and people at crossings in the Gaza Strip, the linkage between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, Israeli settlement expansions and the West Bank wall, the withdrawal of the Israeli army from Palestinian cities in the West Bank and final status issues. Israel is liable to budge on none of these issues and will probably refuse to even discuss them.

Thus a second category of issues enters into the picture. Abbas will seek concessions on prisoners held in Israeli jails, closures and checkpoints in the West Bank and the flow of labor into Israel. Here, Palestinian negotiators may meet with a little more success. The key for the Palestinian side will be to have something tangible at the end of the summit so as not to come away empty-handed. The most important issue for Abbas on this front will be the release of prisoners.

Sharon can be expected to use the meeting to pressure, even lecture, Abbas on the need for the Palestinian Authority to assert itself. The only issue on the Israeli agenda will be the security file, and here Sharon is in a strong position in that he can tell Abbas that after having withdrawn from the Gaza Strip, the ball is now in the PA’s court. He will likely condition any further talks on progress by the PA in asserting itself by disarming the resistance factions, as, Sharon will emphasize, the roadmap calls for. Israel will be particularly interested in the disarming of Hamas, and Sharon will make it clear that he will not accept Hamas running in forthcoming parliamentary elections unless it is disarmed.

Abbas is unlikely to bring up the elections himself because they are an internal Palestinian matter. However, if pressed on disarming the factions, he is likely to tell Sharon that elections are crucial to the PA asserting itself, and he will try to explain to Sharon that without elections the chaos will continue.

There will be no breakthroughs. Sharon will put security firmly on the agenda and brief Washington ahead of Abu Mazen’s visit there, to try to ensure Israel’s security is also firmly on the agenda when US President George W. Bush meets Abbas.

The best Abbas can hope for is some Israeli goodwill gestures that might see the release of a token few hundred prisoners and some easing of restrictions on Palestinian labor into Israel.

Ultimately, this summit is meant to please the international community more than anyone else.

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