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Israel releases Palestinian prisoners, but doubts linger over peace moves

Rearming itself in Gaza, Hamas has made a 'generational leap' in its military capability, a senior Israeli source says.

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The Washington Post reports that former British Prime Minister Tony Blair "made his debut as the new Middle East envoy," by calling Israeli-Arab peace efforts the most important peace and security issue in the world even as Iran pushed a dramatically different approach to the region than Israel, Fatah, and their Western allies.

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The new U.S. plan centers around helping Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas stabilize the West Bank and engage in revived peace talks, while isolating the Hamas Islamic movement currently in control of Gaza.
But in a reflection of the obstacles ahead, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad huddled with the leaders of Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas in Damascus yesterday to chart their own future course for the Middle East.
After bilateral talks, Ahmadinejad and Syrian President Bashar Assad vowed to deepen their alliance and warned Western powers to stand back. "The enemies of the region should abandon plans to attack the interests of this region, or they will be burned by the wrath of the region's people," Mr. Ahmadinejad said at a joint news conference
The United States's top diplomat also said a Palestinian state cannot be achieved without Israel first ending its occupation of the West Bank. "We need from the Israelis a recognition of – and politics based on a recognition – that the future of Israel lies in places like the Negev and Galilee, not in the continued occupation of the West Bank," [Condoleezza] Rice said in an unusually blunt comment about the closest U.S. ally in the region.

Meanwhile, Reuters reports that President Bush is planning to meet Jordan's King Abdullah in Washington next week to "reinvigorate Palestinian-Israeli peacemaking."

Palace officials said the surprise visit by the staunch U.S. ally to the White House on Tuesday would focus on efforts to broaden support for Bush's call on Monday for a Middle East peace conference later in the year, probably in the United States.

The king is spearheading an Arab campaign to get Israel to accept a plan offering a sweeping land-for-peace initiative and has long sought an international meeting that brings together Israel, moderate Palestinian leaders and their Arab neighbors.
Jordan, which hosts the largest number of Palestinians outside the West Bank and Gaza, fears time is running out because of rising Iranian influence and the spread of Islamic fundamentalism that has brought more regional instability.

Writing in the Daily Star, Lebanon's leading English-language newspaper, Yossi Alpher, once an adviser to former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and now codirector of bitterlemons.org, an online newsletter about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, argues that neither Arab states nor Israel are doing enough to back Abbas and create the preconditions for peace.

The neighbors must help Abbas reform the Palestine Liberation Organization, Israel's designated Palestinian negotiating partner. Lest we forget, the Arab League created the PLO. Now that Palestinian body is hopelessly corrupt, manipulated by "dinosaurs" appointed decades ago by Yasser Arafat and out of touch with the Palestinian masses. Abbas, who is basing his leadership strategy on the PLO now that the Palestinian Authority is virtually defunct, seems sadly incapable of changing very much on his own.
Abbas is a weak but well-intentioned leader for whom there is no obvious successor or replacement (although Israel could contribute here by releasing Marwan Barghouti). With the active backing and involvement of Israel's Arab neighbors and a forthcoming Israeli approach – we can't expect much from the United States during the next 18 months – his legacy could conceivably be the initiation of a modest conflict-management process that ushers in another attempt at peace negotiations.
Otherwise - if we leave matters to Abbas alone, if Israel doesn't resume rolling back the settlements and outposts or if the Arabs once again fail the Palestinian cause - he will almost certainly usher in even greater chaos and more Islamist rule.
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