Optimism builds on renewal of talks, but big decision remains for Palestinians

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jerusalem | Major obstacles still remain, but a flurry of diplomatic activity in Israel and the Palestinian territories may have broken a long deadlock in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.

Ever since Hamas came to power in the Palestinian Authority last January, there has been virtually no official contact with Israel. Now, after recent visits to Israel and the Palestinian territories by British Prime Minister Tony Blair and the foreign ministers of Italy, Germany, Spain and Russia, Israeli officials say they’re cautiously optimistic about chances for renewing the peace process.

“We are encouraged by significant changes taking place on the Palestinian side, the international community’s readiness to invest diplomatic capital and the urgency moderate Arab countries attach to the need for immediate dialogue,” a senior Israeli official said.

But there’s a downside: The officials acknowledge that Syria and some Palestinians are trying to play a spoiler role and could torpedo any new initiative.

The spur for the European and Russian diplomacy was the Lebanon war: It highlighted the divide in the Muslim world between radicals determined to confront the West and moderates seeking a common future with America and its allies. The Europeans believe an Israeli-Palestinian accommodation will boost the moderates and take much of the sting out of radical complaints against the West.

“People everywhere now see this global movement of extremism, they see Iran putting itself at the head of it, and there is a huge strategic interest that includes America, Europe, Israel and moderate Arab and Muslim countries that want a modern future. There is a huge strategic interest in making sure that extremism doesn’t succeed,” Blair told Ha’aretz, implying that an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal would be a major gain for the West in this key strategic battle.

In the Israeli view, however, for a peace process to have any chance of gaining momentum, the Palestinians must accept the international community’s three conditions for dialogue: recognition of Israel, acceptance of previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements and renunciation of violence. They also would have to release Cpl. Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier kidnapped near the border with Gaza in late June.

In the past, the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority was reluctant to meet any of these demands. Now Israeli officials say Hamas is feeling the effects of months of international isolation and — in the face of widespread strikes and mounting discontent on the Palestinian street — is reconsidering its strategy.

Indeed, recent Palestinian polls show the secular Fatah movement, which lost the January election to Hamas, now leading it by a margin of almost 2 to 1.

Israeli officials are impressed by the way Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah seems to be doing all he can to get peace talks restarted.

“Abbas is doing all the right things,” the Israeli official said. “He is working for Gilad Shalit’s release and trying to form a national unity government that would accept the international community’s conditions.”

On Monday, Sept. 11, Abbas achieved an ostensible breakthrough, reaching agreement with Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas to set up a national unity government in which Fatah and Hamas would share power.

But will this government comply with the international community’s conditions? Initial reports suggested that its policy would be based on a document hammered out in May between Fatah and Hamas prisoners in Israeli jails, and the Saudi plan of February 2002 for Mideast peace, both of which imply recognition of Israel.

But this might not be enough for the Israelis, who likely will continue to insist on explicit acceptance of the three conditions. Indeed, some Israeli pundits argue that the national unity government is simply a ploy to get the international community to release frozen funds without Hamas really recognizing Israel, renouncing violence or accepting previous agreements.

But Israeli officials are reserving judgment and waiting to see whether Abbas manages to get Hamas to accept the three conditions.

“If he succeeds, we will be able to restart the peace process, the international community could free frozen funds earmarked for the Palestinian Authority and we would make reciprocal gestures,” the official said.

Another reason for Israeli optimism is the positive role Egypt and Jordan are playing. Both Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan’s King Abdullah say they see renewal of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process as a top priority and are working behind the scenes to get things moving. The two leaders met in Amman on Sunday, Sept. 10 to coordinate their moves.

But progress will not be easy, as Syria and some of the radical Palestinian groups try to undermine Abbas and the moderates. In talks with his European visitors, Abbas claimed that he had succeeded a few weeks ago in putting together a deal that included the formation of a national unity government and Shalit’s release, only for it to be torpedoed by Damascus.

Moreover, according to Israel’s military intelligence chief, Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin, radical Palestinian groups are trying to copy Hezbollah’s Lebanon model in Gaza and the West Bank rather than achieve an accommodation with Israel.

The problem is that the great divide in the Muslim world between moderates and radicals is reflected in Palestinian society and its political leadership. Where Abbas and Fatah may be on the side of the forces of modernization, Hamas is very much with the anti-Western radicals. The formation of a national unity government combining the two does not necessarily mean a pro-Western or pro-peace stance.

The Israeli official summed up the dilemma.

“Favorable international and regional conditions for a renewal of the peace process have been created, but despite the intense diplomatic flurry, the ball is still in the Palestinian court,” he said. “Ultimately, they will have to choose between terror and peacemaking.’