Somehow the scene was reminiscent of another incident of politically-inspired physical contact: the embarassing occurrence at the Camp David meeting, when Prime Minister Ehud Barak pushed Yasser Arafat forcefully into the room where Bill Clinton stood waiting.
In both instances it was a gesture that was intended to look like paying respect to the Palestinian leader, but both were actually acts of violence that - seemingly - testified to ignorance of the customs of the other people and of their delicate situation. Actually, the aim was quite different.
ACCORDING TO the New Testament, Judas Iscariot kissed Jesus in order to point him out to those who had come to arrest him.
In appearance - an act of love and friendship. In effect - a death sentence.
On the face of it, Olmert was out to do Abbas a favor. He paid him respect, introduced him to his wife and honored him with the title "Mr. President".
That should not be underestimated. At Oslo, titanic battles were fought over this title. The Palestinians insisted that the head of the future Palestinian Authority should be called "President". The Israelis rejected this out of hand, because this title could indicate something like a state. In the end, it was agreed that the (binding) English version would carry the Arabic title "Ra'is", since that language uses the same word for both President and Chairman. Abbas, who signed the document for the Palestinian side, probably did not envisage that he himself would be the first to be addressed by an Israeli Prime Minister as "President".
But enough trivia. More important is the outcome of this event. After the imposed kiss, Abbas needed a big Israeli gesture to justify the meeting in the eyes of his people. And indeed, why shouldn't Olmert do something resounding? For example, to release on the spot a thousand prisoners, remove all the hundreds of checkpoints scattered across the West Bank, open the passage between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip?
Nothing of the sort happened. Olmert did not release a single prisoner - no woman, no child, no old man, no sick person. He did indeed announce (for the umpteenth time) that the roadblocks would be "eased", but the Palestinians report that they have not felt any change. Perhaps, here and there, the endless queue at some of the roadblocks has become a little shorter. Also, Olmert gave back a fifth of the Palestinian tax money withheld (or embezzled) by the Israeli government.
To the Palestinians, this looked like another shameful failure for their President: he went to Canossa and received meaningless promises that were not kept.
WHY DID Olmert go through all these motions?
The naïve explanation is political. President Bush wanted some movement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which would look like an American achievement. Condoleezza Rice transmitted the order to Olmert. Olmert agreed to meet Abbas at long last. There was a meeting. A kiss was effected. Promises were made and immediately forgotten. Americans, as is well known, have short memories. Even shorter (if that is possible) than ours.
But there is also a more cynical explanation. If one humiliates Abbas, one strengthens Hamas. Palestinian support for Abbas depends on one single factor: his ability to get from the US and Israel things Hamas cannot. The Americans and the Israelis love him, so - the argument goes - they will give him what is needed: the mass release of prisoners, an end to the targeted killings, the removal of the monstrous roadblocks, the opening of the passage between the West Bank and Gaza, the start of serious negotiations for peace. But if Abbas cannot deliver any of these - what remains but the methods of Hamas?
The business of the prisoners provides a good example. Nothing troubles the Palestinians more than this: almost every Palestinian clan has people in prison. Every family is affected: a father, a brother, a son, sometimes a daughter. Every night, the Israeli army "arrests" another dozen or so. How to get them free?
Hamas has a proven remedy: to capture Israelis (in the Israeli and international media, Israelis are "kidnapped" while Palestinians are "arrested"). For the return of the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, Olmert will release many prisoners. Israelis, according to Palestinian experience, understand only the language of force.
Some of Olmert's advisors had a brilliant idea: to give Abbas hundreds of prisoners as a gift, just for nothing. That would reinforce the position of the Palestinian president and prove to the Palestinians that they can get more from us this way than by violence. It would deal a sharp blow to the Hamas government, whose overthrow is a prime aim of the governments both of Israel and the USA.
Out of the question, cried another group of Olmert's spin doctors. How will the Israeli media react if prisoners are released before Shalit comes home?
The trouble is that Shalit is held by Hamas and its allies, and not by Abbas. If it is forbidden to release prisoners before the return of Shalit, then all the cards are in the hands of Hamas. In that case, perhaps it makes sense to speak with Hamas? Unthinkable!
The result: no strengthening of Abbas, no dialogue with Hamas, no nothing.
THAT IS an old Israeli tradition: when there are two alternatives, we choose the third: not to do anything.
For me, the classic example is the Jericho affair. In the middle 70s, King Hussein made an offer to Henry Kissinger: Israel should withdraw from Jericho and turn the town over to the king. The Jordanian army would hoist the Jordanian flag there, announcing symbolically that Jordan is the decisive Arab presence in the West Bank.
Kissinger liked the idea and called Yigal Allon, the Israeli foreign minister. Allon informed the Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin. All the top political echelon - Rabin, Allon, the Defense Minister Shimon Peres - were already enthusiastic supporters of the "Jordanian Option", as were their predecessors, Golda Meir, Moshe Dayan and Abba Eban. My friends and I, who, on the contrary, advocated the "Palestinian Option", were a marginal minority.
But Rabin rejected the offer categorically. Golda had publicly promised to hold a referendum or elections before giving back even one square inch of occupied territory. "I will not call an election because of Jericho!" Rabin declared.
No Jordanian Option. No Palestinian Option. No nothing.
NOW THE same is happening vis-à-vis Syria.
Again there are two alternatives. The first: to start negotiations with Bashar al-Assad, who is making public overtures. That means being ready to give back the Golan Heights and allow the 60 thousand Syrian refugees to return home. In return, Sunni Syria could well cut itself loose from Iran and Hizbullah and join the front of Sunni states. Since Syria is both Sunni and secular-nationalist, that may also have a positive effect on the Palestinians.
Olmert has demanded that Assad cut himself off from Iran and stop helping Hizbullah before any negotiations. That is a ridiculous demand, obviously intended to serve as an alibi for refusing to start talking. After all, Assad uses Hizbullah in order to put pressure on Israel to return the Golan. His alliance with Iran also serves the same purpose. How can he give up in advance the few cards he holds and still hope to achieve anything in the negotiations?
The opposite alternative suggested by some senior army commanders: to invade Syria and do the same there as the Americans have done in Iraq. That would create anarchy throughout the Arab world, a situation that would be good for Israel. That would also renovate the image of the Israeli army that was damaged in Lebanon and restore its "deterrence power".
So what will Olmert do? Give the Golan back? God forbid! Does he need trouble with the 16 thousand vociferous settlers there? What then, will he start a war with Syria? No! Hasn't he had enough military setbacks? So he will go for the third alternative: to do nothing.
Bashar Assad has at least one consolation: He does not run the risk of being kissed by Olmert.