Though Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has said that he has not abandoned hope for negotiations with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, present political realities within the Palestinian Authority and Abbas' own ultimate goals would probably make such negotiations another exercise in futility.
At a recent conference in Washington, I listened to senior Egyptian and Jordanian diplomats and Fatah officials proclaiming an identical message: If Israel were only to start negotiations with Abbas and refrain from unilateral steps, peace would be just around the corner.
As to Hamas - well, that would be handled by means of the so-called "Arab Peace Plan."
The proverbial Martian landing in our midst might have concluded that negotiating with the Palestinians was an entirely new idea. Eureka!
He wouldn't, of course, have known that a few months after the Oslo agreements, buses blew up in Tel Aviv; that the Palestinians have broken every agreement; and that Yasser Arafat embarked on his pre-planned Al Aksa intifada after former President Clinton and former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak had, at Camp David and Taba, offered him just about everything but the kitchen sink.
Nor would this person from outer space have been told that Abbas himself had made it perfectly clear that his own aims and principles did not vary from Arafat's.
When Abbas recently declared at Sharm el-Sheik that a permanent peace could be achieved "within weeks" and urged Israel to adhere to the Quartet's road map, he conveniently forgot that he himself had failed to live up even to the map's first phase, which includes destroying the terrorist infrastructure and ending incitement in the Palestinian media.
One can easily discern the main points of the Arab strategy: rejecting "realignment" and mobilizing international opposition to it, presenting Abbas as a willing negotiating partner. If, as may be expected, the planned negotiations go nowhere, the international community will step in with its own imposed solution, tailored to traditional Arab positions on borders, Jerusalem, settlements, etc.
In the eyes of the international community, including the United States to some extent, Abbas has become the fair-haired boy who can do no wrong, with Hamas being the villain. Even Fatah, parts of which never stopped terrorist activities against Israelis, is now often depicted as almost a paragon of virtue.
Abbas carefully projects respectability and moderation whenever it is called for - without, however, moving one inch from his intransigent positions. Even his perceived weakness has served him well, such as when he claims to be unable to shackle Hamas or stop the Kassam rockets, and that more international support might help him do so.
Abbas' latest move is the referendum on a document which he claims implicitly recognizes Israel. Whether the referendum passes or not - or even whether it will actually take place - does not make much difference to the quest for peace. The struggle between Fatah and Hamas is over primacy, power and money, not about peace with Israel.
The proposal that Abbas intends to put to voters is the declaration adopted by prominent jailed terrorist leaders of both Fatah and Hamas, including life-termer Marwan Barghouti. It includes all the negative aspects of the 2002 Saudi-backed "Arab Peace Initiative" with the addition of endorsing continued terrorism against Israelis in the territories.
Abbas now believes, not without reason, that he is in a win-win situation. He has put both Hamas and Israel on the defensive -Hamas because it is forced to object to a referendum on Palestinian statehood, and Israel by complicating her negotiating stance. All this without changing any of his own hard-line positions!
Israel may go ahead with "convergence," or postpone it indefinitely. But under no circumstances should she allow her decisions, whichever they may be, to be held hostage to the Palestinians' stratagems.
Zalman Shoval twice served as Israel's ambassador to the United States.