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What If There Is a Partner?

Last week’s statement by Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, was the first time — the first time ever — that Palestinians have seized an imaginative and potentially constructive diplomatic initiative. Abbas gave Hamas 10 days, until June 4, to accept the specific proposals of what has come to be known as “the prisoners’ letter,” developed over a two-month period and signed by Fatah’s Marwan Barghouti and by leaders of Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the Democratic Front and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, all held in Hadarim prison in Israel.

The letter calls for, among other things, the Palestinians to accept the 1967 borders as the basis for a Palestinian state. And the Abbas statement promises that if Hamas rejects his demand, he will in 40 days take the issue to the people in a referendum.

For Israel, the Abbas plan is a snare, but it is no delusion. Hamas already has rejected it, and soon enough we will see whether Abbas’s sudden burst of energy is what it appears to be: an important change in the tone and substance of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as well as an assertion of Abbas’s, and Fatah’s, primacy even in the wake of the Hamas electoral victory.

Why a snare? Because it is not at all clear how Israel might or even how it should respond if Hamas persists in rejecting the Abbas demand and the Palestinians vote “yea” on the referendum, as seems likely. Plainly, Israel cannot and will not accept the prisoners’ letter as more than a starting point for negotiations, if even that.

The letter calls for Israel’s complete withdrawal from all the lands conquered in 1967; for the absolute right of return for all refugees and freedom for all Palestinian prisoners; for a Palestinian state with its capital in Jerusalem; for continued resistance to Israel, albeit only in the West Bank. But it designates the Palestine Liberation Organization, and hence not the Hamas government, as the sole legitimate representative of Palestinian interests. And here and there it leaves wiggle room, which is where diplomacy breathes and breeds.

Israel will not accept all the stated terms, but their acceptance by the Palestinian people would put the ball in Israel’s court immediately, thereby presenting Israel with both a problem and an opportunity. Suddenly, the standard Israeli argument that it has no partner for peace — for some time now, an Israeli mantra that both reflected and shaped reality — is publicly downgraded from a trump card to an alibi.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s insistence that before he moves to “convergence”— his plan for Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from the bulk of the West Bank — he will seek a negotiated resolution of the conflict would now be put to a tough test. And thereby, so would Olmert himself.

Precedent here is not encouraging. In 2002, the Saudis put forward a peace plan, approved by the Arab League in Beirut just months later: In return for its withdrawal to the pre-1967 lines, the Saudis explicitly affirmed that all Arab states would establish normal diplomatic relations with Israel, including a peace treaty that would recognize Israel’s right to exist.

There is reason to believe that the Saudis, and the Arab League, would acknowledge Israel’s sovereignty over the Western Wall, would allow for some land swaps that would enable Israel to annex some of its enclaves in the West Bank in return for equivalent land transfers to the new Palestinian state, and would accept Israel’s demographic concerns as a legitimate limitation on the right of return. The plan, casually endorsed as a basis for negotiation by then-prime minister Ariel Sharon, was then resolutely ignored by Israel. Yet in retrospect, it borders on the beguiling:

Should Israel, which already has agreed to the re-arming of Abbas’s presidential guard, now wait to see whether and how the new Palestinian initiative unfolds, or should it jump into the process immediately — and if so, with what response? So far, no senior Israeli government official has had anything good or anything bad to say about the Abbas proposal; wait and see appears to be Israel’s formal strategy.

In the meantime, celebrate Olmert’s evidently successful trip to Washington, his supportive reception by President Bush and the enthusiastic reception of his speech to the United States Congress. In the meantime, expect the Palestinians yet again to make a mess of their own future. In the meantime, therefore, steady as she goes: Invite negotiation, but prepare for unilateral withdrawal.

Both Yossi Beilin, leader of Meretz, and Ami Ayalon, former head of the Shin Bet( General Security Service) and a Labor member of the Knesset, have acknowledged the importance of the Abbas initiative, but aside from them and a handful of others, the general response in Israel has been a yawn. The prisoners’ letter is plainly better than the stated Hamas position, but it is as plainly a very long way from Israel’s minimal conditions for a resolution of the conflict.

Yet even if it be thought too meager to warrant a serious Israeli response, the morning after it has been approved by a majority of the Palestinian people it becomes the lead element of the prevailing agenda. Wait and see?

When, 20 years ago, I talked at some length with Ehud Olmert about the conflict, he — then a rising star — assured me that time was working in Israel’s favor, that there was no reason to rush, that the status quo was entirely acceptable. It was not then; it is not now.

Olmert knows this, and up close. So, for that matter, does President Bush. But Olmert’s notion of unilateral withdrawal, if meant as a serious alternative and not merely a bluff to get the Palestinians to move, is wretchedly wrong-headed. And now, in any case, the Palestinians may, at last, be moving.

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