Imagine a dance highly formalized, without emotion, between partners who don't even like one another, never mind pleasure or lust.
That's what we've been seeing the last few days around an interview given by Mahmoud Abbas, a.k.a. Abu Mazan, a.k.a. President of the Palestine National Authority, but not recognized as such in Gaza.
Quoted several times is a line that Abbas would like to visit his home town of Safed as a tourist, but would not see himself as a resident.
"Palestine for me is the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as the capital, this is Palestine, I am a refugee, I live in Ramallah, the West Bank and Gaza is Palestine, everything else is Israel."
He also denounced rocket attacks from Gaza, and other kinds of violence as a way of moving forward.
Israel's peace camp is ecstatic. Its activists read his comment on Safed as giving up the right of return for Palestinian refugees. His interview proves that Israel has a partner. It's Netanyahu who has sabotaged the peace process by refusing to negotiate.
Tzipi Livni telephoned Abbas after the interview, and told him how important it was to say such things in public. She appeared on Israeli television to blame Netanyahu and his government for poisoning the opportunity for negotiations. When the interviewer pressed her by saying that virtually no centrist and few leftist politicians were urging negotiations, she retreated to her posture that it was necessary to bring down the present government. She was not prepared, however, to say that she would be a candidate.
Two politicians who may actually lead some Knesset members after the next election, and describe themselves as centrist or left of center, were less outspoken. Yair Lapid refused to answer questions from an Ha'aretz reporter about Abbas' interview. Labor Party leader Shelli Yacimovich did not sound like a leftist waving a firebrand and demanding peace now. According to her, "A retreat to the borders of 1967 isn't acceptable,"
Netanyahu and his party colleagues in Likud, now Likud our Home, are skeptical in the extreme. Netanyahu said that Abbas has dithered for four years, not coming any closer to negotiations than expressing preconditions, like having a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem and recognizing the legitimacy of the 1967 borders. Netanyahu's new party partner, Avigdor Lieberman, referred to comments among left-of-center Israelis when he said, "The attempt to lie to ourselves amazes me every time."
Ha'aretz summarizes divisions among Israelis with the headline: "Peres: PA president is partner for peace; Netanyahu: Abbas' words are empty."
Palestinians are in their own uproar. Spokesmen of Palestine-Gaza have again called Abbas a traitor. Abbas was expressing his personal opinions, and does not have the right to speak for the Palestinians without a referendum. The editor of an Arab newspaper in London accused Abbas of making "free concessions" by saying that he does not want to return to Safed.
"If Abbas does not want to return to Safed, and to continue living in Ramallah or Amman, that's his personal decision . . . But in such a case he should not be claiming to represent - or talk on behalf of - six million refugees scattered throughout the world."
Representatives of Abbas' own party assert that he did not give up the right of return, that the Israeli interpretation of his remarks is a misreading of what he said and what he did not say. Abbas himself says that his interview was not broadcast in full. He told Egyptian media that he will continue to demand the right of return for any refugee who wants to return.
Observers linked Abbas' remarks to their timing. They came a few days before an American election whose winner might respond to Abbas' effort at accommodation by supporting, or at least being quiet about an Abbas effort in the United Nations to upgrade Palestine's status to that of an observer state without full membership rights. It also coincided with the Balfour Declaration's anniversary. That document of 1917 announced the British government's support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Thus, Abbas means to remind the world of some unfinished business in Palestine. And it came in the early days of Israel's own national election, and might have been meant to boost candidates inclined to favor another effort to reach agreement with the Palestinians.
It may be a while before the President of the United States and other world leaders respond to Abbas' interview and the variety of reservations and denunciations. Whether it is Barack Obama or Mitt Romney, both seem to have been sobered by events since Obama's Cairo speech, his surge in Afghanistan, the attack against American diplomats in Libya, the ongoing bloodbath in Syria, and the reluctance of both Palestinians and Israelis to negotiate seriously. It would not be uncommon for a re-elected President to change key personnel in his foreign policy team, or to give his aides an opportunity to resign in response for warm praise.
We can expect Palestine to remain a matter frequently mentioned, perhaps described as the highest priority. However, for Abbas' speech to move support for Palestine beyond lip service will require a sea change in Israeli politics, cooperation from Gaza's leadership, the acceptance of Gaza's moderation by Iran, and decisions in American and European capitals to try, seriously, once again, to achieve something in this part of the Middle East.
Don't hold your breath waiting for a breakthrough. Beyond a minute or two, optimism will endanger your health.
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem