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New push for Mideast peace

Before talks could begin, big issues – such as Palestinian unity – need resolution.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 20, 2007



Washington

At least since Ronald Reagan called the search for Middle East peace a "moral imperative" in 1982, US presidents have kept the issue high on their agenda. Now, after six years of relegating a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to secondary status, the Bush administration – led by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and prodded by regional actors ranging from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to Jordan's King Abdullah – appears ready to try to give new life to the process.

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The change comes as the split between the Palestinians of Mr. Abbas's Fatah organization in the West Bank and those in Hamas-controlled Gaza hardens – unexpectedly giving Israel a "partner" in the West Bank with which to test the negotiating waters. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who met with President Bush on Tuesday, says he sees in an Abbas who is free from association with Hamas the partner Israel needs for moving toward peace.

But experts in the region caution that it will not be easy – and indeed hardly tenable over the long run – to base a renewal of the peace process on talks with a government that in effect only represents a portion of the Palestinian people. The question of who truly represents the Palestinians, and the gnawing reality that Hamas was elected to head a Palestinian government while the new West Bank government was appointed by Abbas, will continue to dog any peace efforts, analysts say.

Returning a vision of peace to the horizon may be possible, but much groundwork remains to be done before any serious move to the nitty-gritty of negotiations can be entertained, some experts say.

"This is a moment to seize in the sense that Abu Mazen [the name some prefer to use for Abbas] no longer has the millstone of Hamas around his neck and therefore should be able to do some things he couldn't do before," says Edward Walker, a former US ambassador to Israel and Egypt. "But to overreach and try to say, 'Today we are going to try to talk about the status of Jerusalem,' nobody is ready for that."

West Bank stability, Hamas's role

Among the "not insignificant" issues that have to be tackled before any serious peace process could be relaunched, Ambassador Walker says, are Abbas's authority over the West Bank and a stabilization of that part of the territories – not to mention the direction Hamas takes in Gaza, relations between the two Palestinian authorities, and how the international community deals with the split.

"The whole thing has to sort itself out," says Walker, now an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington.

But some leaders may have different motivations for wanting to move ahead now. Secretary Rice, who has latched on to Middle East peace as an area where she could deliver before the end of the Bush presidency, has pressed since January for a return to the peace process. Yet before now, Mr. Bush has shown no overt enthusiasm for the renewed push, aside from obviously signing off on Rice's repeated forays into the region this year.

But on Monday, Bush "pledged help and support" to Abbas in a telephone conversation, according to White House spokesman Tony Snow. Bush sees in Abbas "a partner who is committed to peace," Mr. Snow said, adding that Bush would share with Mr. Olmert the ideas the two leaders discussed on the peace process.

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