New push for Mideast peace

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

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.

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.

The US has been under pressure from the region to find a way to relaunch the peace process. King Abdullah used a phone call with Olmert this week to call for Israel and the Palestinians under Abbas to take serious steps toward negotiations.

Some administration officials even speculate that Bush could use the anniversary later this month of his call in 2002 for a two-state solution as the occasion to bless a renewed peace push. But other analysts with close contacts within the administration believe this could just be wishful thinking on the part of the group of officials who have grumbled for years about the administration's lack of enthusiasm for the peace process.

In fact, some longtime experts in the diplomatic history of the peace process say there is a pattern of calls at moments of crisis for rededication.

"Anytime we go through a period of upheaval, change, and tumult in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, we hear these same hopeful words – that this is a changed environment, that this is an opportunity and let's use it to move forward," says Bernard Reich, a professor of international affairs at George Washington University.

Yet while he says he is all for "seizing opportunities," Mr. Reich cautions that this is not akin to Egyptian President Anwar Sadat saying, "Let's talk peace," or even Yasser Arafat recognizing in the early 1990s that the world was changed.

The major hurdle Reich sees is that the hard bargaining of peace talks requires strong leaders – and the current "opportunity" does not fall when the principle negotiating parties have them.

"You have a weak Abbas" who is adjusting to a retreat to a portion of the entity he supposedly governs, "and a stronger [than Abbas] but still weak Olmert" who doesn't appear to have the backing he once did to negotiate the Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, according to Reich.

One of the stronger of the leaders, Reich adds, is probably Ismail Haniya, whom Abbas dismissed as Palestinian prime minister when he named a new West Bank government. Hamas insists he remains the legitimate – because elected – head of government.

'No harm' in trying

Reich says "there is of course no harm in trying to move things forward," and Walker says it makes sense in a very liquid environment to focus on "giving moderate Palestinians a boost, " as the US and European Union have pledged to do.

Still, one of the questions the Bush administration will face as it tries to move ahead with partners it says it can work with is why it is isolating the leaders – in this case Hamas – who came to power through elections that it wanted as a sign of the region's democratization.

The administration can count on Hamas to trumpet that point to the region, as it already is. "This [attempt at isolation of Hamas] confirms the falseness of the international community's support for democracy," Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said on Monday, according to the Associated Press.

One risk for the US is that the effort to build up Abbas as a partner for Israel will only sour Arab publics further on the West. That could happen if a split approach to the Palestinians is perceived as more of what many already see as a US policy of democracy that's only in America's image.

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