Will the election of Mahmoud Abbas, people ask, lead to a breakthrough in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Wrong question. What matters is not the preferences of Palestinian voters and whether they have chosen Abbas, Mustafa Barghouti, Marwan Barghouti or even Osama Bin Laden, but how much leeway the US allows the Israeli government. And the answer is: do whatever you deem fit, partners!
Through his "disengagement" plan Ariel Sharon, the Israeli prime minister, has managed to turn himself, in the eyes of the world and of his own people, into a mainstream politician, a brave peacemaker, a de Gaulle-type figure ready to fight his former allies, the settlers. The settlers' hysterical response to his professed intention to evacuate 7,000 of them from the Gaza Strip (out of 200,000 in all) contributed much to this new image.
The Israeli left offers no alternative. The Labour Party begged to be included in his new government; the secularist party Shinui, recently forced out of the government to make space for the orthodox religious, would be delighted to get back on board; the faint criticisms of Sharon from Yahad (formerly Meretz), the Zionist-left party, don't fool many, and influence even fewer.
Sharon offers nothing to the Palestinians but a big ghetto called Gaza, confining nearly two million people between concrete walls and barbed wire, while Israel keeps most of the West Bank and prevents the founding of a viable Palestinian state.
But it was never the Palestinians that Israel was negotiating with: it was the Americans.
The US has always set the Israeli standard for what a "liberal" position on the conflict can be. Traditionally, the Israeli centre-left is pro-American, while Likud and the radical right wing pulls towards anti-Americanism. But the US administration has now moved so far to the right that even Sharon and the majority of his party (albeit a tight majority) can live with it. The left has yet to get used to the idea of defying the will of America from a liberal position. Yahad betrays a mild preference for Europe, but hesitates to spell it out. In Israel today, Europe is widely regarded as "anti-Semitic", so a pro-European affiliation is the love that dares not speak its name.
Abbas is not perceived as a leader elected to represent his own people, but as a subcontractor whose only role is to "prove himself" to the Israelis and hence to the Americans. His need to prove to the people who elected him that he is about to fight for their rights, rather than sell them out, is given no consideration. Palestinian public opinion is considered a nonentity. The Israelis have refused any undertakings to avoid attacks on Palestinian lands, stop expanding settlements in the West Bank or, God forbid, put a halt to the open hunting season on Palestinian children, so often shot as a result of "regrettable and honest mistakes".
But Abbas, at the same time, is required to "prove" that he is "adamant to stop terrorism". This "terrorism" apparently includes the attack on 13 January on the Karni checkpoint leading to Gaza, which prompted Israel to close the checkpoint and freeze contact with the Palestinians. Is there really no difference between a suicide bombing in a civilian bus and a military attack on a checkpoint manned by occupation soldiers?
The Israeli government wants its citizens and the world to believe that there is none.
The newly marketed atmosphere of hope, based on the new "national unity" government in Israel and the elections in the Palestinian Authority, is not much more than a sham. The policies that make it tick are based on neo-colonial ideas of "favours granted on the basis of improved behaviour", "unilateral gestures" and "punishment for misconduct". They can never lead to an agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians. If progress now depends on Israel being satisfied with Mahmoud Abbas's "good behaviour", then all we have to look forward to is years of stagnation interrupted by surges of violence.
It is striking that the Israeli people, just as much as the Palestinians, are victims of this shabby falsehood.
The vast majority, who now brace themselves to struggle against the right-wing radicals to achieve the Sharon version of peace, are going to be shocked when they discover that the Palestinians are not grateful for their efforts. The cycle of violence will end only when Israelis realise that "making the Americans happy" and "negotiating peace with the Palestinians" are not the same thing.