JERUSALEM—While a tenuous cease-fire holds on Israel's northern border, the ongoing war between Israel and militants in the West Bank and Gaza is derailing any chance to end the 58-year-old conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
That's good news for Islamic extremists everywhere, who can continue to exploit the festering issue to recruit new fighters and terrorists, raise money and stoke Muslim resentment of Israel and the United States.
Israeli forces last week finished the latest in a series of operations in Gaza and the West Bank, killing—according to a Palestinian count—20 people in addition to the 240 Palestinians who've been killed in the two areas since Sunni Muslim militants kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in Gaza on June 25.
Israeli officials say the fighting in Gaza and the West Bank is unlikely to stop until Shalit is freed, and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has said that plans for a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from much of the West Bank—similar to Israel's unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip—have been shelved.
Meanwhile, the conflict in Lebanon—triggered when Shiite militants there kidnapped two Israeli soldiers—appears to have moved any attempt to revive peace negotiations off even the back burner. The Bush administration, which supported Israel's war on Hezbollah in Lebanon, has shown no interest in prodding Olmert to talk peace with Palestinian leaders whom it considers terrorists.
That means that by kidnapping Israeli soldiers, lobbying rockets into Israel and plotting terrorist attacks, a small number of Shiite militants in Lebanon and Sunni militants in Gaza may have checkmated more moderate Arab leaders. They also may have ensured that they and their patrons or allies in Iran, Syria, al-Qaida and elsewhere can continue to play the Palestinian card with varying degrees of cynicism.
"There's unanimity that the Palestinian question is the core issue threatening peace in the region," said Said Zeedani of Al-Quds University in Jerusalem. "All other issues are derivatives, symptoms, of our inability to solve a single problem: what to do about those of us who are Palestinian?"
Iyad Barghouti, the director of the Ramallah Center for Human Rights Studies, argues that while there are other arguments between Israel and some of its Arab neighbors (the Israeli occupation since 1967 of Syria's Golan Heights, for instance), the Palestinian question overshadows everything else.
"It's not unlike the arguments I have with my wife," he explained. "They may start out about who forgot to bring home the sugar, but pretty soon we're back to 1948" (when Israel became a nation and many Palestinians were displaced).
The argument isn't likely to be resolved anytime soon, as noted Israeli commentator Yossi Alpher has said.
"It's in everyone's best interests to at least appear to move forward," he wrote. "But it's so far back on the burner right now that I can't see that anyone should get excited."
Talks between Israeli and Palestinian leaders have been off since January, when Palestinians elected a government led by the militant Islamic group Hamas. Israel and the U.S. consider Hamas a terrorist organization, and say they don't negotiate with terrorists.
Palestinian assets also were frozen at the time, a policy that Israeli and American officials hoped would weaken the Hamas-led government and encourage Palestinians to demand a more moderate one.
"Instead, that policy increased anger in the region, and helped bring about a new war," said Barghouti.
The war in Lebanon, Alpher and Barghouti agree, has only made matters worse.
"The Palestinians came out of this much weaker," Alpher said. "If Israel didn't believe they could find a party to negotiate with before, they're less likely to accept one now. On the other side, Olmert has also been weakened by the conflict (in Lebanon), and he's going to improve his strength by finding allies among those who won't be pushing for movement in the peace process."
"I would expect Israel to come out of a difficult war convinced that war is not the way forward, and more ready to negotiate," said Barghouti. "Instead, it's clear they won't engage in the peace process soon."
For their part, Palestinian officials are discussing whether to form a unified government that would include both Fatah, the secular party of the late Yasser Arafat, and Hamas, in hopes that it would be a more appealing negotiating partner. However, the Hamas-led government is weak, and workers from garbage collectors to teachers, who haven't been paid regularly since March, are talking about going on strike.
Meanwhile, conditions in Gaza and the West Bank go from bad to worse, making the Palestinian territories even more fertile ground for Islamic extremism.
"I've never seen so much hatred and bitterness as during my last visit there," said United Nations relief coordinator Jan Engeland Friday at a meeting in Sweden to discuss the plight of the area. Engeland, who's traveled in Gaza and the West Bank for 25 years, said Palestinians there are living "in a cage."
And the longer the conflict continues to fester, the more fodder it will provide for Islamic extremists who seek to wipe Israel off the map, reclaim Jerusalem for Islam, or even launch a fight to the death against Judaism and Christianity.
There's broad agreement that the only way to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is to create an independent Palestinian state comprised of the tiny Gaza Strip along the Mediterranean Sea and the larger West Bank, which Israel captured from Jordan in 1967.
Such a two-piece Palestinian nation would be slightly smaller than Delaware, with almost 4 million people. Israel, about the size of New Jersey and with about 6.5 million people, would be three times larger. The two parts of the Palestinian state, which are now separated by barrier fences and walls, would be connected by a 50-mile-long road through Israel.
The boundaries of such a state are essentially agreed upon, roughly following the lines in existence in 1967, but the two sides remain far apart on some crucial issues, including:
_The future of Jerusalem, which both Israel and the Palestinians claim as their capital, and which contains religious sites revered by Christians, Jews and Muslims.
_The exact border between Israel and the West Bank.
_The right of Palestinians who were displaced by Israel's creation in 1948 and by subsequent Arab-Israeli wars to return to their homes or be compensated for lost property.
_Control of water in the West Bank and the Jordan River Valley.
_The right of Palestinians to travel between Gaza and the West Bank without interference.
_The recognition of Israel's right to exist by governments that have refused to do so and guarantees that a Palestinian state won't be a launching pad for attacks on Israel.
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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