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Despite rising hopes, outlook for Middle East peace remains grim

JERUSALEM—The Nov. 11 death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and the election Sunday of his successor have inspired international hopes that new negotiations to end the bloody four-year war with Israel might bring peace.

Among Israelis and Palestinians, however, such optimism seems premature, even unrealistic. The armed Palestinian uprising, which Palestinian presidential front-runner Mahmoud Abbas has denounced, and the abandonment of peace agreements have hardened both sides into a distrust that is difficult to overcome, say Israeli and Palestinian politicians, former peace negotiators and analysts.

The long-awaited election of a new Palestinian leader is unlikely to change the situation, they say, even with Abbas' moderate anti-violence stance and his strong international support.

Abbas was the man whom Arafat was forced to name as his prime minister last March—not least because of American and other international pressure—so that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon could avoid negotiating directly with the guerrilla leader, who was his bitter enemy for decades. Abbas, who resigned in frustration Sept. 6, is now unshackled from Arafat's veto power and better able to bring about a cease-fire among militant groups, as he did during his premiership, and possibly make it stick.

His ascendancy has encouraged U.S. officials enough to send new aid to the Palestinian Authority and to "work rigorously" to aid Sharon's effort to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and part of the northern West Bank, said outgoing Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage in a Friday interview with Abu Dhabi Television.

"There's a lot of hope and there's a lot of energy, I think, awaiting the outcome of the Palestinian elections," Armitage said. "My own view is a reasonable process will lead to a reasonable solution, which most Palestinians will endorse because they want to live in peace and security in their own state called Palestine, and it's about time they be allowed to do so."

Nonetheless, a full-blown, final-status peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians is "probably more remote today than it was five years ago," according to Dore Gold, an adviser to Sharon, and researcher David Keyes. They argued in a recent essay, "What If Bush Invited Sharon and Abu Mazen to Camp David," that Abbas, known as Abu Mazen, was stridently attached to such deal-breaking demands as "right of return" for millions of Palestinian refugees to Israel during peace talks convened by President Clinton at Camp David in 2000.

"This does not mean that in 2005 no `window of opportunity' exists; rather, its actual size must be accurately measured. Indeed, in the present context, a partial cease-fire is more realistic than significant progress on any of the substantive issues raised at Camp David," they wrote.

Not that Abbas won't try to exceed those gloomy expectations. He made clear that resuming Israeli-Palestinian talks is among his top priorities. During a campaign speech Thursday in the West Bank city of Nablus, he described Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as a partner for those negotiations, a sentiment rarely expressed by any Palestinian politician. Palestinian Deputy Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah said Thursday that the first official Israeli-Palestinian talks in 18 months could take place by the end of January.

But like many other veterans of Israeli-Palestinian peace attempts, Abdullah offered a caveat: "Having talks doesn't mean we'll get there. It's an icebreaker, nothing more."

Israeli officials offered similarly pessimistic assessments.

"Meaningful talks will be possible only when the reality on the ground will change," said Yuval Steinitz, chairman of the influential Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee in the Israeli parliament. That reasoning led Israel to refuse British Prime Minister Tony Blair's invitation last month for a joint Israeli-Palestinian conference in London this summer.

The key obstacle is each side's unwavering stance that the other must first make concessions, such as those laid out in the stalled, U.S.-led "road map" to peace, but neither side is willing to do so. Uninterrupted fighting since September 2000 has claimed nearly 5,000 lives and has only entrenched each side's resolve.

For the Israeli government, the first step must be an end to Palestinian terror attacks against Israelis, a demand echoed by the Bush administration. For the Palestinians, the first step must be an end to the Israeli military crackdown on Palestinians.

The United States is the only party that realistically might be able to break that stalemate, officials here say. Palestinian and Israeli officials don't envision the Bush administration taking that step, given the demands of its war in Iraq.

The United States "must have the courage to lead us in order for us to realize a two-state solution here," said Palestinian Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat. "But I haven't seen any signs yet, all I see is more settlements and more military incursions."

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is further marginalized by international worries that Islamic militants might destabilize Saudi Arabia and that Iran might become nuclear-equipped and increasingly influential, said Hillel Frisch, an expert on Palestinian politics who teaches at Bar-Ilan University in Israel.

Even if Abbas blinks first, it can't happen until he gets his political house in order, first making sure that he gains control of the myriad security agencies that answered to Arafat, Frisch added. Those agencies are key to reining in the militants.

"To put preconditions on (Abbas) is kind of a cynical game," said Yossi Beilin, a dovish Israeli politician who negotiated with Abbas in the 1990s. "He will not succeed without help from the United States and Israel," such as economic aid, permission for Palestinians to work in Israel, relaxed checkpoints and an end to targeted killings of militants unless they pose an imminent threat.

"But Sharon is not thinking about a permanent agreement. He's not even paying lip service to it," Beilin charged.

Instead, unilateral measures aimed at segregation rather than negotiation have emerged. Sharon is forging ahead with plans to withdraw settlements and soldiers from the Gaza Strip and part of the West Bank starting this summer, as well as completing a controversial 450-mile barrier to separate Israel from the Palestinian West Bank. "We have no reason to speak about new agreements when previous agreements have not been fulfilled yet," Steinitz said.

There's little pressure from the Israeli and Palestinian publics on their leaders to pursue much more than a cease-fire. A Dec. 27-28 poll in the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz showed that while 75 percent of Israelis felt that Israeli-Palestinian political negotiations should resume, only 32 percent believe any lasting peace settlement will be reached with the new Palestinian government.

In the West Bank city of Ramallah, Palestinian engineering student Karim Abdul, 20, said he doesn't believe peace will come in his lifetime. "They (Israelis) are shooting us every day, they don't want peace," he said, echoing a sentiment often expressed on Palestinian streets.

Forty-one miles southwest in the Israeli town of Sderot, Eduard Yosepov is equally pessimistic, although for him, it's the Palestinians who don't want peace. They send that message daily from the Gaza Strip in the form of homemade rockets, one of which struck and killed his father last June 28, said Yosepov, a 26-year-old security guard and Uzbek immigrant.

"Nothing will change. It's forever, this enmity, no matter how much anyone talks," he said.


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Yosepov

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