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Sunday, 3 December 2006

Lasting peace uncertain despite Mideast cease-fire

BOSTON GLOBE | December 3, 2006

By Matthew Kalman, Globe Correspondent

JERUSALEM -- The most intense week of Middle East diplomacy in a year -- including high-profile pressure from Washington on the Israelis as well as Palestinians -- has produced a long-awaited cease-fire but failed to spur any concrete moves toward a long-term peace process.

Negotiators on both sides said that even Washington's renewed interest in the conflict can't end a long stalemate between the two sides, paralyzed on the one hand by Palestinian infighting and international sanctions against Hamas, and on the other by an Israeli government considered too weak to deliver serious compromises.

The week began with a burst of optimism when Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel and the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, announced a cease-fire in Gaza. That energized peace supporters for the first time since November 2005, when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice brokered a major agreement on freedom of movement for Palestinians that United Nations monitors say was never implemented.

But the momentum toward deeper negotiations had fizzled by Thursday, when Rice paid an anti-climactic visit to Israeli and Palestinian leaders and both sides downplayed any prospects for a breakthrough.

"Frankly, I do not expect anything to come of this," said Zalman Shoval, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States. "To me, it looks like a situation where perhaps there could be talks, though even that is doubtful.

"Mr. Abbas seems to be completely powerless to really make his views accepted by the Hamas government, and public support for the Israeli government is not exactly skyrocketing," Shoval said.

A recent poll published in the Israeli daily newspaper Ma'ariv indicated that if new elections were held, Olmert's governing Kadima party would plummet from its current 29 seats to 18 in the 120-seat Knesset, Israel's parliament. The survey suggested that the Likud Party, led by Benjamin Netanyahu, would form the next government with 29 seats.

Palestinian leaders planned crisis meetings over the weekend after lengthy on-off talks between Fatah and Hamas on a coalition government broke down. Formation of a new government, devoid of Hamas domination and willing to cooperate with Israel, is seen as the first step toward reviving the stalled peace process.

Abbas told Rice after their meeting in Jericho: "We have reached an impasse, a deadlock. This is painful to us because we know how much our people are suffering."

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Abbas had abandoned efforts at trying to form a coalition with Hamas and would consult with Palestine Liberation Organization leaders "and study the options, anything short of a civil war."

The week's events showed how quickly the mood can swing in the Mideast, and how slim the prospects of a new round of peace talks are after more than five years of stasis and fighting.

After five months of violence in and around Gaza, Abbas made a rare phone call to Olmert Nov. 25 to announce a unilateral cease-fire, which went into effect last Sunday morning.

On Monday, despite sporadic Palestinian rocket attacks that violated the cease-fire, Olmert took a major policy shift and agreed to the mass release of Palestinian prisoners in return for the freedom of a captured Israeli soldier, Corporal Gilad Shalit. He also ordered the Israeli army, which had been planning a major military invasion of Gaza, not to respond to the rocket strikes and to begin coordinating security measures with their Palestinian counterparts for the first time since Hamas took power.

Olmert told the Palestinians that if they ended violent attacks and formed a new government willing to recognize Israel, he would immediately begin peace talks, release blocked Palestinian funds, and work toward the establishment of a Palestinian state.

"We, the state of Israel, will agree to the evacuation of many territories and the settlements that we built there. This is extremely difficult for us, like the splitting of the Red Sea. We will do it for real peace," Olmert said.

He urged the Palestinians to abandon radicalism and said they were standing at "an historic crossroads."

Abbas described Olmert's speech as "very encouraging."

"This is a big departure from what we have seen before," said Ephraim Halevy, former head of Israel's Mossad secret service and the Israeli National Security Council. "On the Palestinian side, Mr. Abbas has taken some very courageous steps and shown he has leadership mettle of which he was not all that abundant in the past. For the Israelis, Mr. Olmert has said a few things which are a departure from what was up to now Israeli policy on key issues."

The sudden surge of good will reached as far as Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas prime minister. He appeared to break with the traditional Hamas call for Israel's destruction by endorsing the establishment of a Palestinian state only in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

"When the leaders of Israel and Hamas in the same weekend offer each other long-term peace deals, you just know in your bones that we are passing through a potentially historic moment," commentator Rami G. Khouri wrote in the Daily Star of Beirut.

But most Palestinians remain skeptical of US policy, regarding it as skewed in favor of Israel.

"The United States is considered a dishonest broker," said Mohammed Dajani, professor of American studies at Al-Quds University in Jerusalem. "It is seen as biased, supportive of Israeli policies while denying Palestinian rights and moving within the orbit of Israeli policy."

Some suggested that US engagement on the Israeli-Palestinian issue would help win support from Europe and moderate Arab states as the United States gathers allies to deal with pressing problems in Iran and Iraq.

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