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Talks emerge out of Gaza conflict

Israeli and Palestinian leaders met to talk about finances and prisoner release.

By Ilene R. Prusher, / December 26, 2006



JERUSALEM AND TEL AVIV

At a weekend summit, Israeli leader Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas seemed to find common ground on a key point: that a devastating Palestinian conflict will eventually total up to a loss for Israel as well.

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The summit, the first of its kind in two years, came against a backdrop of growing Israeli concern that the deepening violence between the Hamas and Fatah movements could spill into a civil war.

The renewed interest in forging an official Israeli-Palestinian dialogue has come after a long period of stagnation on the diplomatic level and internecine strife on the ground.

"We have an interest in stability, not because it might contribute to a solution, but because it contributes to conflict management," says Yossi Alpher, a coeditor of the Web-based Israeli-Palestinian forum, Bitterlemons.org.

Mr. Abbas's supporters in Fatah, the wing of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) founded by the late Yasser Arafat, have become entangled in unprecedented levels of violence with militants affiliated with Hamas.

Abbas's decision to call new elections for the Palestinian Authority (PA) has been met with refusal by the Hamas-led government, elected almost a year ago, and is being portrayed by the Islamic movement's adherents as a coup attempt. Those with a darker view of events are wondering aloud whether this trend – including a sudden spate in assassination attempts and kidnappings – might portend an implosion of the PA altogether.

"Both of them are in trouble and each one is trying to save his neck," says Ali Jarbawi, a political scientist at Birzeit University, near Ramallah.

"But if this meeting is enough to save their necks, I don't see it. I expected more, actually, and I think all the Palestinian people did. I thought the outcome would be something tangible. I don't think Abbas can show anything much more than the kisses with Olmert, and that is something I think Hamas will capitalize on in the future."

Mr. Jarbawi's doubt that the two leaders can reach a turning point comes in part from the fact that Israel says it won't release prisoners unless Cpl. Gilad Shalit, captured in June, is returned first. But Corporal Shalit is held by Hamas militants, and Abbas doesn't hold the power to convince them to release him.

"Abu Mazen [Abbas's nickname] should deliver something to the people, and it can't be $100 million here and loosen up some checkpoints there," says Jarbawi, referring to Israel's decision to release $100 million in tax revenues that it has withheld from the PA since Hamas came to power. "There has to be plan: end the occupation five years from now. Then he has something for offer, if not, it's peanuts."

Analysts here say that if the conflict deepens in Gaza, it's likely to distract the Israeli army's focus from what it now considers the top threat to the Jewish state: a nuclear Iran. A collapse of the Palestinian government could turn the clock back 20 years, pushing Israel into the position of running Palestinian affairs and sending its army to once again become mired in an occupation.

Even with their long-time foes enmeshed in their own street battles and kidnappings, Israeli officials acknowledge that the prolonged civil conflict in the Palestinian territories is ultimately a danger to them as well.

"It's an internal Palestinian crisis: Israel is not directly involved and we'd like to keep it that way. We don't have a public perspective," says Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev.

"Israel has no interest living next to a failed society, a failed economy, and a failed political system," he adds. "Those are ingredients for further instability."

The solutions for changing the equation have many of the same techniques that were applied a decade ago, when the two sides were in a bona fide, if sometimes beleaguered, peace process.

Now, as in the past, the first of these involve funds and freeing prisoners. Israel has agreed to release some tax revenues, Israeli officials say, on condition that it isn't used by Hamas or even used to pay salaries, a difficult parameter to meet since all of the PA's government ministries are now under its control.

Israel is also discussing a prisoner release, possibly to include jailed Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, who is serving five life sentences in an Israeli prison. Mr. Barghouti consistently shows up in public opinion polls as one of the most popular Palestinian personalities.

Of course, there are many numbers of critics on either side that won't like the newly configured game. Many Palestinians say they've already chosen a government in January of last year – this after some 10 years without an election for their legislative council – and that the world should accept their democratic decision. These Palestinians accuse Abbas of being in the hands of both Israel and the US, neither or whom are particularly popular these days in the Palestinian territories. For this reason, some observers say Israel's Olmert needs to tread gingerly in any efforts to boost Abbas's standing.

Israelis, meanwhile, are not likely to applaud a decision to release Mr. Barghouti along with other prisoners. Olmert, already viewed as a relatively weak premier following this summer's war with Hizbullah, may therefore look to appease hard-line critics on the right while simultaneously making moves to facilitate Abbas' need to assert his authority.

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