The Palestinian Authority is being torn apart in an internal struggle and is on the verge of civil war, while Olmert has lost public support and is worried about potentially destabilizing his coalition. Under such conditions, despite the importance of the meeting, the two leaders will have a hard time turning it into a real political process.
Olmert depicted the meeting with Abbas as a first step in implementing the political initiative he raised four weeks ago in his Sde Boker speech. The prime minister made an offer to Abbas at the time to begin a political process that would include "the evacuation of many territories and communities established therein," the establishment of a Palestinian state with territorial contiguity in the West Bank, and the release of many prisoners. Since that speech, serious international pressure has been exerted on Olmert and Abbas to forgo their preconditions and agree to talk. Israel must show it is standing with Abbas and Fatah in their confrontation with Hamas.
Ahead of the meeting, Abbas conceded his demand that prisoners be released, and Olmert conceded his demands for a new Palestinian government and the release of abducted soldier Gilad Shalit. The prime minister also took a political risk in his decision to show restraint in the face of continuing Qassam fire from Gaza, despite pressure from Defense Minister Amir Peretz and other ministers to resume Israel Defense Forces activities there. Olmert's policy of restraint enabled the meeting to take place, an eventuality that was in doubt until the last moment.
The gestures that Olmert promised his guest at the Prime Minister's Residence - primarily unfreezing PA funds and removing roadblocks in the West Bank - are important and appropriate, but we must address them cautiously. Experience shows that Israel has promised repeatedly to provide relief for the Palestinian population that is not involved in terror, but it has never upheld such steps over time. This time it was clarified from the beginning that the gestures would be miserly: Olmert said that no prisoners would be freed before Shalit's release, and only some of the PA funds would be unfrozen, subject to the establishment of a supervisory mechanism. But even if the gestures are made, they will not be enough to strengthen Abbas' unstable position and shift the Palestinian public's support from Hamas to Fatah.
Olmert's test will therefore lie in his ability to continue the political process beyond a single meeting and initial gestures. Only if he perseveres with the process, sticks to his words and isn't deterred by difficulties will the Sde Boker initiative make progress and even be implemented. Olmert's remark at the cabinet meeting yesterday that he would consider freeing prisoners in honor of the Muslim holiday of Id al-Adha, even before Shalit is returned, was the first step in the right direction.