Talk about tactics, not strategy

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It is tempting to suggest that in their summit meeting, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon should discuss the road to peace and an agreed two-state solution. But they are completely mismatched for such an endeavor, and neither is up to the task, so that would be an exercise in wishful thinking.

Abu Mazen is weak politically, has embarked on a controversial course of enfranchising his Islamic fundamentalist rivals, and still adheres to final status concepts on issues like the right of return that, alongside his questionable ability to "deliver", render any attempt to enter comprehensive negotiations with him a potentially counterproductive endeavor.

Sharon is hampered by electoral politics, does not believe in the viability of peace agreements with our neighbors, and has embarked on a unilateral course of determining Israel’s final borders that requires only minimum coordination–and which in any case does not leave the Palestinians sufficient land to build a state.

Given these conceptual gaps between the two leaders’ views, only US President George W. Bush could conceivably bring them together to discuss peace. But the American leader has a different set of priorities in the region and at home, and a major mediation or even facilitation effort by Washington is not likely.

This leaves the two leaders on their own, dealing essentially with tactical issues. Sharon, a better tactician than strategist, enjoys the advantage and has good reason to be generous. He can and should offer Abu Mazen confidence-building measures that help stabilize his authority: release of veteran prisoners, supply of ordnance for his security forces, flexibility regarding Gaza’s border crossings and safe passage between the West Bank and Gaza, withdrawal from cities, and dismantling of outposts and checkpoints. He should also undertake to avoid interfering in Palestinian elections despite his understandable objections to Hamas’ participation. But he should take this opportunity to clarify that, after January 25, Israel will not be obligated to negotiate with a Palestinian Authority that comprises an Islamic fundamentalist movement if Hamas still deploys a terrorist force and rejects Israel’s very existence.

Abu Mazen, a better strategist than tactician, should not waste his time trying to persuade Sharon to restart the peace process; he has far more urgent issues on his agenda. He has to explain how his cooptation approach to Hamas will ultimately succeed in disarming and moderating that organization; how he will overcome the current government crisis in Ramallah and finally create a cohesive security establishment; and how he is going to put Gaza back on its feet.

There are additional heavy issues that it would be pointless for either side to put on the summit agenda, if only because the other side doesn’t have persuasive answers. One is Sharon’s senseless policy regarding the fence/wall in Jerusalem, which is setting the stage for another intifada. Another is Abu Mazen’s appallingly sloppy and disorganized leadership style, wherein key trusted advisors are absent and vitally important decisions (e.g., sending a forceful and articulate ambassador to Washington) are never made.

These are not the leaders who will end this conflict or even get the roadmap going. But they can do some good if, in their summit, they limit their aspirations and take into account one another’s political constraints and ideological limitations. It would help if Abu Mazen were to publicly recognize the advantages for Palestinians, too, of Israel’s unilateral territorial approach, and offer to help facilitate future Israeli unilateral territorial moves. And it would be useful for Sharon to stop complaining about Abu Mazen’s weaknesses and recognize that the Palestinian leader’s intentions are positive, that the alternatives to his leadership are worse for all concerned, and that he deserves more active Israeli support.

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