A dark summit

There never was a darker Middle East summit meeting. The darkest there can be.

The four leaders at Sharm al-Sheik did not sit together at an intimate round table. Each one sat alone behind a huge table of his own. That ensured a striking separation between them. The four long tables hardly touched. Each one of the leaders, with his assistants behind him, sat like a solitary island in a vast sea.

All four–Hosni Mubarak, King Abdallah of Jordan, Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas–bore a severe countenance. Throughout the official part of the conference, not a single smile could be seen.

One after the other, the four delivered their monologues. An exercise in shallow hypocrisy, in empty deceit. Not one of the four raised himself above the murky puddle of sanctimonious phrases.

A short monologue from Mubarak. A short monologue from Abdallah. A medium-length monologue from Abbas. An interminably long monologue from Olmert–a typical Israeli speech, overbearing, educating the whole world, sermonizing and dripping with morality. Held, of course, in Hebrew, with the obvious aim of appealing to the home public.

The speech included all the required phrases–Our soul longs for peace, The vision of two states, We do not want to rule over another people, For the good of coming generations, bla-bla-bla. All in standard colonial style: Olmert even talked about “Judea and Samaria”, using the official terminology of the occupation.

But in order to “strengthen” Abbas, Olmert addressed him as “President” and not as “Chairman”, which has been the de rigueur title used by all Israeli representatives since the establishment of the Palestinian Authority. (The wise men of Oslo circumvented this difficulty by referring -in all three languages–to the head of the Authority by the Arab title of Ra’is, which can mean both president and chairman.
And the word that did not appear throughout this long monologue?


Occupation? What occupation? Where occupation? Anybody seen any occupation?

The occupation was not on the agenda of this dark summit. Even in their wildest dreams, the Arab participants could not imagine anything more wonderful than “easing the restrictions”. Making life a little bit less difficult for the suffering population. Giving back the Palestinian tax revenues. (That is to say, Israel may give back some of the money it has pocketed.) Moving some of the roadblocks that prevent people from going from one village to the next. (That has already been promised many times and will not happen this time either, because the army and the Shin Bet object. Olmert has already announced that it is impossible for “security reasons”.)

With the air of a Sultan throwing coins to the paupers in the street, Olmert announced his intention of releasing some Fatah prisoners. 250 coins, 250 prisoners. That was the “generous gift” that was to make the Palestinians jump for joy, “strengthen” Abbas and awaken to new life the dry bones of his organization.

If Olmert had not been sitting so far away from Abbas, he could just as well have spat in his face.

First at all, the number is ridiculous. There are now about 10,000 (ten thousand) Palestinian “security” prisoners in Israeli prisons. Every night, about a dozen more are being taken from their homes. Since there is no more room in the prison facilities, the wardens will be pleased to get rid of some inmates. In previous gestures of this nature, the Israeli government has set free prisoners whose term was nearing the end anyhow, and car thieves.

Second, fraternization between Fatah and Hamas is well established in prison. The violent struggle in Gaza has not been projected into the prisons. The famous “prisoners’ document”, which laid the foundation for the (now defunct) Unity Government, was worked out jointly by Fatah and Hamas prisoners.

Olmert’s announcement of his readiness to release Fatah–and only Fatah–prisoners is designed to sabotage this unity. It could stigmatize the Fatah people as collaborators, and Abbas as a leader who is concerned only with the members of his own organization, not giving a damn for the others.

So what did come out of this summit conference? Some say: zero plus, some say: zero minus. No wonder that the Arab participants looked so somber.

What was it good for? Abbas was in need of strengthening after losing the Gaza Strip. Olmert promised the Americans to strengthen him. But after the conference, Olmert could have used the phrase customarily uttered by Israeli leaders visiting bereaved families: “I came to strengthen, but it is I who have been strengthened.”

The sole winner was Olmert. The conference has proved that Mubarak’s and Abdallah’s influence on Israel is nil, and that Abbas’ position is even worse.

To eliminate any doubt about this, Olmert sent the army at once into the kasbah of Nablus, the heart of Abbas’ virtual kingdom, in order to “arrest” the leaders of the military arm of Fatah. They put up determined resistance, wounding several soldiers. A lieutenant lost a hand and a leg. In another incursion, this time into Gaza, 13 Palestinians were killed, including a boy of 9. According to the official version, the aim was to throw the militants off balance so that they would feel hunted.

If this is not occupation, what is it? But God forbid that anyone mention this word in diplomatic discourse–the ten letters that have turned into an obscenity. A ten-letter word that has become taboo in polite society.

Former member of Irgun and an Israeli army commando, writer and journalist Uri Avnery is now a committed peace activist