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Searching for Some Agreement Between Warring Nations
At pretty much the same time that Secretary of State Rice and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert were discussing, during Olmert's Washington visit, the best means to weaken Hamas by strengthening Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, the House of Representatives was overwhelmingly voting for a bill that, in the eyes of many in Israel and the United States, would prop Hamas up.
Gen. Dan Halutz, chief of staff of the Israel Defense Force, recently told the Knesset, "economic pressure in my view will not accelerate the collapse of the Hamas government." On the contrary, the fund cutoff was building support for Hamas by allowing it to play the victim.
That surely is not the intention of those who voted for the bill.
But, as was widely reported, the bill did not pass based on its merits. Voting "yes" was the path of least resistance. On the other hand, the mere rumor that a House member was considering voting against it brought down upon them the wrath of lobbyists who made their displeasure known in explicit and sometimes ugly ways.
The Senate which, as expected, is on the verge of passing its own Hamas sanctions bill, which eliminates the defects that marred the House version.
It distinguishes between Hamas and non-Hamas Palestinians, allows for aid to Abbas and agencies under his control, and allows the president to provide aid as necessary to advance the interests of the United States.
This is precisely what critics of the House bill had pushed for, not to mention the Bush administration which, not surprisingly, wants to preserve the president's flexibility.
Meanwhile, in Ramallah later the same week, Abbas said that if the Hamas government does not announce its acceptance of Israel and the two-state solution within 10 days, he will call for a referendum in which the Palestinian people can themselves decide on their own future.
They will be asked to choose between a West Bank/Gaza state or continuing the war to achieve all of historic Palestine.
Abbas knows which side would win that referendum; a clear majority of Palestinians have indicated in public-opinion polls that they are ready for compromise. Once it passes, Hamas would have no choice but to back down from the limb on which it is so precariously standing or to lose credibility and, very likely, power.
And Prime Minister Ehud Olmert - who told Congress that before he proceeds with further unilateralism he wants to pursue negotiations - would have not only a negotiating partner, but one with a mandate.
Of course, virtually no one in Israel would accept the terms of the intra-Palestinian agreement.
But that isn't the point. The document, if adopted, allows both Israelis and Palestinians to go back to where they were before the second intifada broke out, which means moving toward negotiations over security, borders, settlement blocs, the status of Jerusalem and refugees.
The Palestinian document would serve as a statement of their maximum demands about an Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders and the refugees' "right of return."
The Israelis, for their part, would demand retention of settlement blocs, full control over Jerusalem, and a ban on refugee return.
Agreement, if reached, would be somewhere in the middle.
The main thing is to get the process moving. If it doesn't, Olmert will move unilaterally on his realignment plan, as he has every right to do. But even then, final borders for Israel (and a Palestinian state) can only be arrived at through negotiations, whether sooner or later.
Let's hope for sooner.
All in all, this is a moment of promise. Following the mid-term elections, President Bush begins the last lap of his presidency. But he has more than enough time to help the Israelis and Palestinians back to negotiations.
Olmert is ready.
As he told Congress on Wednesday, "With a genuine Palestinian partner for peace, I believe we can reach an agreement on all the issues that divide us. Our past experience shows us it is possible to bridge the differences between our two peoples. I believe this - I know this … ."
And Abbas stated: "There is an overwhelming majority among the Palestinian people for peace, an overwhelming majority in favor of an agreement with Israel. We cannot say no to everything - what can we say yes to?"
That applies to both sides.
Getting Israelis and Palestinians to say "yes" won't be easy. But it can be done. And Bush and Rice can be the ones to help make that happen.
M.J. Rosenberg is director of policy analysis of the Israel Policy Forum.