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Wednesday, 24 October 2007

Analysis: Wheels turning again on Middle East 'road map' to peace

SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service

Jerusalem -- Is the Israeli-Palestinian peace process back on track?

That's the question occupying diplomats as they prepare for a Middle East meeting called by President Bush for Annapolis, Md., next month or early December. A recent flurry of diplomatic activity appears to have breathed new life into the U.S.-backed "road map," encouraging some to believe it could recover from a near-fatal blow in June with the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip.

The charge is being led by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who is expected to return next week to Jerusalem and Ramallah for talks for the eighth time this year. Wrapping up her latest round of talks last week, she said her efforts stood a "reasonable chance of success."

But even her personal involvement has so far failed to bridge the gap required for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to sign a joint declaration of principles that would pave the way for a solution to the conflict. Some observers even say it would be better to cancel the meeting than allow it to fail.

"The idea is not to raise expectations that can lead to frustration and to violence, because we need to learn from past experience," Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said recently, alluding to the failure of the Camp David summit in July 2000 that was followed by the Palestinian uprising known as the intifada.

Hamas, the Islamic militant group that controls the Gaza Strip, has urged Palestinian and other Arab leaders to stay away altogether, calling Bush's invitation a "new door for capitulation. ... We urge our Arab brothers not to go down this dark tunnel."

Writing in the Jerusalem Post last week, David Kimche, a former deputy commander of the Mossad spy agency, said, "Failure is not an option. Its consequences would be too harrowing - the collapse of the moderate, anti-violence and pro-peace camp of Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and President Mahmoud Abbas, victory for Hamas and other extremist factions and the eventual demise of the two-state solution."

While the Annapolis meeting has garnered international attention, work on the ground is being spearheaded by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the newly appointed Middle East representative of the so-called Quartet of the United States, United Nations, European Union and Russia.

Brushing aside skepticism that greeted his appointment in July, Blair has thrown himself into his new job, planting a 10-person team in offices in the American Colony Hotel in Jerusalem and promising to spend at least one week a month in the region.

"The most important thing is that things are moving again," Blair said during a recent trip to New York. "There is momentum back in this process. That doesn't mean to say that we are foolishly optimistic after all the difficulties of the past. But things are moving again."

Blair said that by year's end, the Palestinian Authority is expected to create a blueprint for institutions needed to create an independent state, and that he has been working with international donors and private business investors to create the economic conditions necessary to make that happen. His efforts closely mirror the conclusions of three recent reports from the International Monetary Fund, World Bank and British government that call attention to the deepening economic crisis in the Palestinian territories and suggest that without an economic solution, a political process is impossible.

Blair is considering a graduated program of action, beginning with issues affecting the daily life of Palestinians - mobility, education and employment. Blair will ask donors to create jobs and improve Palestinian living conditions by funding a slew of major infrastructure projects, ranging from roads and factories to power stations and sewage treatment plants.

Some Palestinian officials, however, say they have heard it all before.

"Palestinians keep hearing about economic recovery plans submitted by this or that envoy or representative, when they, even as individuals, can hardly travel from one city in the West Bank to another," said Walid Awad, a senior official in Fatah, the moderate faction headed by Abbas. "They hear about security plans and wonder about their own security, hear about one peace initiative or another, when in effect, nothing changes on the ground, except for the worse."

But this time, Blair is determined to reach results. He is helped by the fact that Israeli and Palestinian leaders sense that this may be the last chance to save Palestinians from spending the next century in a constant state of war under a fundamentalist Islamic regime led by Hamas.

After Fatah was driven out of Gaza by Hamas in June and left to rule only in the West Bank, Abbas and Fatah officials know they must end corruption and lay the foundations of their future state, many analysts say.

All this requires Israeli cooperation. The Olmert administration must remove military checkpoints in the West Bank, release Palestinian prisoners and make diplomatic progress if ordinary Palestinians are to feel any benefits from Blair's mission, most analysts say.

But the Israelis also are faced with a serious quandary. They are under almost daily rocket fire from the Gaza Strip, where Hamas continues to call for Israel's destruction. Nor is the Hamas threat confined to Gaza. Only last month, a suicide bomb wired in a belt was discovered in Tel Aviv after a huge security operation netted a Hamas bombmaker in a Nablus refugee camp.

"Everyone understands that Tony Blair has a crucial mission here," said Mark Regev, Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman. "We have no interest in Israel living next to a failed society with a failed economy. It will only create instability and provide a recipe for further violence. Israel has its own interest in the Palestinians getting their act together - economically, politically and socially. We are behind Blair."

This article appeared on page A - 13 of the San Francisco Chronicle

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