Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas met on Monday for the first time since Feb. 19 at the urging of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who dropped by briefly a week earlier to declare the peace process was "moving in the right direction."
President Bush is still saying he expects a peace agreement before he leaves office in nine months, and Olmert and Abbas are making similar claims while accusing each other of foot-dragging.
Since none of them is offering any evidence to back up their optimism, here is my Top 10 list of signs of progress to look for in your cup of Mideast tea leaves to help you judge whether this peace process is serious:
10. Prisoners -- This is the most emotional issue for Palestinians and for many Israelis, especially when it comes to prisoners with blood on their hands. Any Israeli release is a good will gesture; the more prisoners freed, the greater the progress being made.
9. Haim Ramon -- The deputy prime minister is Olmert's closest confidant and his chief test pilot. He's the guy who launches trial balloons to gauge public reaction to new ideas or policies. So when he says something about a Jerusalem compromise, prisoners, settlements, removing outposts or easing restrictions on Palestinian movement, pay close attention.
8. Incitement -- Incitement was supposed to be banned under the Oslo accords of 1993 and again under the 2003 "road map"; despite some improvement under Fatah in the West Bank, it continues to rage in Gaza's mosques, media and schools. When Hamas begins to shift from glorifying terrorists and teaching children to hate to talking about reconciliation and peace, it will be a critical turning point.
7. Arab Leaders -- They remain a cowardly lot, content to sit on the sidelines demanding U.S. pressure on Israel but refusing to respond to Olmert's offer to discuss their own peace proposal. So far, the Arab League response has been no talks until Israel accepts all of their conditions. Progress will come when Arab states are ready to meet with Israeli leaders and begin normalizing relations.
6. Refugees -- This is the Arab poison pill, and they know it. Their demand for full right of return for millions of refugees to Israel is an intentional deal breaker. Opposition is the one thing that unites all Israelis because they know it is a ploy to make Jews a minority in Israel. President Bush has the formula right -- Jews will have full right of return to the Jewish state and Palestinians to the Palestinian state. That view is shared by Sens. Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John McCain. The Palestinians won't do anything without backing from Arab leaders, and they're not getting it. Look for signs of flexibility on this issue.
5. Hamas -- Its goal remains sabotaging the peace process and destroying Israel, but some Hamas leaders have begun talking about accepting a two-state solution, or at least a long-term ceasefire in exchange for an end to the Israeli blockade. Positive signs will be a deal to release captive Israeli Cpl. Gilad Shalit and enforcing a cease-fire on other terror groups.
4. Settlements -- This may be the toughest single issue in the short term for both sides. Olmert has repeatedly promised Bush to remove illegal outposts and freeze settlements, but so far, bupkiss. Arabs tell Bush it is a test of his own credibility. Meanwhile, despite Rice's objections, Olmert authorized construction of hundreds of new homes in Jerusalem area settlements. Bush's reaction will tell you how serious he really is.
3. Kvetching or kvelling -- When each side stops kvetching so much about the failings of the other side and has something nice to say you'll know they're making progress. Some of it sounds superficial, like how Olmert and Abbas get along personally despite deep differences; that doesn't sound like much until you think of Abbas' predecessor. Pay attention to the tone, as well as the nature of each side's complaints.
2. Security -- This is Israel's highest priority. Will the Palestinian Authority be part of the problem or part of the solution? Look for Abbas' government to deploy its security forces into West Bank cities and begin going after the extremists. Will Israel have confidence that Palestinian police will use their new training and weapons to do that job and not turn them against Israelis? Will Egypt crack down on smuggling between Sinai and Gaza? Will Israel keep its commitment to remove checkpoints and take other measures to give Palestinians greater freedom of movement in the West Bank, and how will Palestinians respond? Watch for an end to Palestinian rocket attacks, fewer Israeli raids on the West Bank, a halt to targeted assassinations and the PA enforcing law and order in the West Bank.
1. Shuttling -- If Secretary Rice and other top U.S. and Arab officials begin showing up more frequently and staying longer, moving back and forth between the two sides, and the president himself contributes more than his usual pep talks and phone calls, that will be a very promising sign of movement and not just motion.
These are some of the indicators you can look for when you read the papers and watch the news from the Middle East; they can help you judge whether there is progress and hope -- or just more marching in place.
Douglas M. Bloomfield, a former staff member of AIPAC, writes about the Mideast and politics of Jewish life in America.