Another Israeli-Palestinian peace summit has come and gone with little to show, though an unconfirmed report indicated hope for the release of a kidnapped Israeli soldier.
In a sign that Israel is becoming accustomed to such low yields, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert referred to Sunday afternoon’s meeting with Palestinan Authority President Mahmoud Abbas as the latest in a set of “bilateral contacts” a phrase more befitting conferences between mid-level bureaucrats perhaps than the tete-a-tetes of regional statesmen.
Yet for Israel there was still some urgency to the two-and-a-half-hour meeting in Jerusalem, as it came perhaps days before the Palestinian Authority is expected to forge a new coalition between the governing Hamas and Abbas’ more moderate Fatah.
Olmert used the occasion to stress that unless the new government accepts Western conditions for peacemaking recognition of Israel, renunciation of terrorism and acceptance of past Israeli-Palestiniain accords negotiations would remain stalled.
“A decision by Abu Mazen on the creation of a unity government with Hamas that does not recognize Israel is imminent,” said Amos Gilad, chief strategist for Israel’s Defense Ministry, using the name for which Abbas is familiarly known.
“This being the case, there is an accentuation of the need to underscore and emphasize that there is no alternative” to the preconditions, which were set by the Quartet of foreign mediators, he said.
Abbas aides said before the talks that he would try to persuade Olmert to soften his stance, but that apparently did not happen.
“The meeting was very frank and very difficult,” Mohammad Dahlan, a senior Abbas aide, told Reuters. “Many issues were discussed, including the national unity government, which the Palestinian side stressed was an internal Palestinian affair.”
Still, there may have been a surprise sweetener from Abbas.
Israel’s Channel 10 televisi! on repor ted that the Palestinian Authority president told Olmert that the release of Cpl. Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier held hostage in the Gaza Strip, could be imminent. The report could not be confirmed immediately.
Liberty for Shalit, who was abducted last June, could prompt reciprocal goodwill gestures by Israel, such as a mass amnesty for Palestinian prisoners, and bring rapprochement closer in spirit, if not on paper.
It would also help Olmert domestically. The prime minister, embattled in the fallout of last year’s Lebanon war and a slew of corruption scandals in his government, is seen as desperate for a breakthough.
Results from a television poll late last week showed that were elections held today, Olmert would win just 3 percent of the vote. His arch-rival, opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, was seen taking 30 percent.
But given the deadlock with Hamas, which refuses to embrace peacemaking despite the costs of an almost year-old Western aid embargo, Olmert appears set on circumventing the Palestinians by going for a more comprehensive regional peace deal.
The prime minister surprised Israelis on Sunday with a vigorous endorsement of the dormant Saudi proposal for Israeli-Arab peace.
“We are very, very vigilantly monitoring developments in the Arab world in general,” Olmert told his Cabinet in broadcast remarks. “We are taking note of the positive developments among the moderate Arab states.
“We said more than once that the Saudi inititaive is a subject we would be willing to treat seriously. We have not changed our stance.”
Israel has previously expressed cautious interest in the proposal, first broached by Riyadh in 2002, that it surrender lands captured in the 1967 Six-Day War in exchange for pan-Arab recognition.
While Riyadh formally refuses to recognize Israel, there is mounting evidence of Saudi involvement in Israeli affairs.
Olmert himself met with a Saudi delegate who is clos! e to the Bush administration last year. And Israel Radio revealed Sunday that Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh had held brief, “accidental” talks with the Saudi ambassador to the United States, Adel al-Jubeir.
“We have many problems to solve together,” the radio quoted Jubeir as telling Sneh.
But accepting the Saudi initiative in principle would mean complications for Israel, which first needs reassurance that it will not be expected to admit Palestinian refugees to its territory en masse.
Then there is the scale of withdrawals required by the Saudi initiative especially on the Golan Heights, which Syria wants back. Accommodating Damascus at a time when it is high on the Bush administration’s list of regional grievances would be a major gamble for Olmert.
So a solution for Olmert may be found in Saudi Arabia, specifically when the Arab League convenes in Riyadh at the end of the month.
“We very much hope that in the meeting of Arab leaders in Riyadh, the positive elements expressed in the Saudi initiative will be reaffirmed,” he told his Cabinet. “And perhaps there will be a chance of bolstering the possibility for negotiations between us and the Palestinian Authority on this basis.”