Palestinians, Israelis more open to talk

A summer of conflict has shaken unilateralism and pushed new realities on Israeli and Palestinian leaders.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert say that, in principle, they're ready to meet with each other. In practice, political observers say, such a summit meeting is not around the corner.

But the two leaders are heading toward a common turning point, born of new realities that have become apparent after a long, war-riddled summer: from Gaza in June to northern Israel and Lebanon in July and August. Both sides appear to be moving toward a realization that the conflict might be more manageable if they forgo a go-it-alone approach. And yet, both sides are grappling with their own internal struggles that might weigh down diplomatic efforts to resume the Israeli-Palestinian political process.

Mr. Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, announced Monday in Gaza that his Fatah faction of the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization) would be forming a first-ever national unity government with the ruling Hamas, which swept to power in Palestinian elections in January. The move follows months of economic and political isolation of the Palestinian Authority by the international community; the US and many Western countries will not deal with Hamas because they consider it a terrorist organization. In this, Abbas has moved closer to a hoped-for goal – getting the moderate, secular Fatah party back into Palestinian decisionmaking.

There is, it seems, a palpable desire for change. A Palestinian unity government, which has never been formed before, holds out the possibility of a resumption in international aid and diplomatic recognition. The government's isolation has made it nearly impossible for the Hamas government to pay salaries, increasing the already high levels of economic deprivation.

Abbas's apparent breakthrough Monday with Hamas leaders in Gaza came on the heels of a meeting here on Sunday with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, in which Abbas said he was willing to meet with Mr. Olmert "without preconditions." That term is viewed as a signal of readiness to talk before any decisions are reached for an expected Palestinian prisoner release in exchange for Israel's kidnapped soldier, Cpl. Gilad Shalit.

"I think Hamas is reaching the point where they have to change," says Professor Said Zeedani, a political scientist at Bir Zeit University near Ramallah. "They may not change their skin. But if you can design a new government in a way that they will not feel robbed of their victory, it may actually work."

In Israel, too, many are viewing the possibility of significant shifts due to the last few months of turbulence. Across political circles from left to right, there has been an evolution in opinion over the effectiveness of the strategy forged by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who has been comatose since January. A year ago this week, Mr. Sharon ordered the last Israeli soldiers out of the Gaza Strip following 38 years of occupation, carrying out a disengagement plan designed to extricate Israel from one of the thorniest corners of the conflict without engaging in further talks with the Palestinians.

But now, many Israelis have come to question the very concept of unilateralism as an appropriate solution. Whether it was a wise gambit to withdraw soldiers and some 8,000 Jewish settlers from Gaza in the course of a week – largely without negotiating the process with Palestinian counterparts – has become a question that has taken on increasing pertinence.

Israel's new Kadima Party, hardly half a year in power, built its vision on Sharon's legacy of taking a unilateralist approach to increase Israel's security and viability. Israel's recent war with Hizbullah has served to decrease the popularity of unilateral moves, given that Israel decided to pull out of south Lebanon in May 2000, independent of any regional discussions or comprehensive peace plan.

"The mentality of unilateral disengagements, if you read the Kadima platform, is that Israel has the legitimate right to settle [the West Bank and Gaza], but demographically, it's not good and we don't want to have to rule over another people," explains Reuven Hazan, an expert on Israeli politics at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

"That unilateral approach has been dealt a very harsh blow, both because Hamas took over Gaza and began to rocket nearby Israeli communities, and because we pulled out of Lebanon in the same way six years ago," he says. "We now have a track record of unilateral disengagements which has failed miserably."

Israel's two unilateral moves – leaving Gaza last year and Lebanon in 2000 – seemed sensible at the time, he notes. By 2000, many Israelis were keen to get out of a deathtrap for their soldiers in a place where Israel says it has no territorial claims.

In Gaza, the decision was fueled primarily by demography. Studies showed that Jews would soon be outnumbered by Arabs in the territory under Israel's control, when combining the population of Israel proper with the occupied territories.

"Disengagement was a way to get 1.4 million Palestinians out of Israel's control," Mr. Hazan says. "It doesn't mean we can sit back and not deal with the West Bank," he adds. "The precedent that Israel gets out of territory whenever and wherever it wants, that concept is basically is gone."

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