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Diplomatic Momentum Builds in Effort to Resolve Arab-Israeli Dispute

03 April 2007

Diplomatic momentum is building in the Middle East. High-level international and regional initiatives are once again focusing global attention on efforts to resolve the Arab-Israeli dispute. VOA's Jim Teeple reports some Israeli and Palestinian observers say the diplomacy is helpful, but it is now up those who live in Israel and the Palestinian territories to move the process forward.

Diplomats are once again paying attention to the Middle East. Recent visits by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, and European leaders like German Chancellor Angela Merkel have put the Arab-Israeli dispute back in the international spotlight.

Also for the first time in years there are regional efforts at conflict resolution - especially by Saudi Arabia which brought the Palestinian factions, Hamas and Fatah together in negotiations to form a unity government - and then brought Arab heads of state together to revive a 2002 peace plan with Israel.

Now the talk is all about "political horizons" or discussions leading to the creation of a Palestinian state and regional diplomatic recognition for Israel. However, beyond an agreement between Israeli and Palestinian leaders to meet on a regular basis there are few signs that all the diplomatic activity of the past two months is going to lead to a major breakthrough in negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.

Nader Said, who teaches Sociology at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank city of Ramallah says the three key players who have to push for a settlement are in no position to do so.

"In relation to the Israeli situation, you have a very weak Israeli government," Said said. "The situation is volatile. It is expected that the current (Israeli) government might fall and a new election might take place. Within the United States itself, we have an upcoming election, and in the year of the election no one is willing to put pressure on the Israeli side - which is needed to achieve concessions from Israel. On the Palestinian side you have a great deal of exhaustion. The situation is also precarious between the two main political parties - no one is sure if the unity government will last for a long time."

Being in a weakened political position does not rule out making progress in Middle East peace efforts says Gidi Grinstein, the President of the Reut Institute, a public policy group that advises the Israeli government on strategic issues. Grinstein says peace efforts can get a boost in Israel when the country's leaders are at their weakest.

"There is a weak prime minister but there is also a structural problem here and that is we have a political system that generates short and unstable tenures, fragmented legislatures and fragmented executives," Grinstein said. "The outcome is that every Israeli prime minister has one major political move to make with the Palestinians. The moment he or she begins to embark on that process their coalition breaks down and they basically lose power. So prime ministers in Israel have to choose between political stability with immobility with the Palestinians, or making progress with the Palestinians and losing the political stability. This is why Israeli prime ministers go for the political move with the Palestinians usually towards the end of their political tenure, after they have exhausted all their other options."

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert says he will meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas but he will not discuss anything other than "humanitarian issues. " Israel says it will have nothing to do with the new unity Palestinian government because it is dominated by Hamas. The group refuses to recognize Israel, disarm, or fully accept past peace agreements between Israel and the Palestinians - three conditions Israel says are necessary for Israel to sit down and negotiate.

Nader Said of Bir Zeit University says that is unlikely to change anytime soon because while he says most Palestinians want peace with Israel, few are willing to push Hamas to publicly moderate its hard-line stance.

"The vast majority of Palestinians in the polling has been done through the years and especially last year are supportive of negotiations. The majority are supportive of a two-state solution," Said said. "The Palestinians are supportive of the Oslo agreement and mutual recognition between Israelis and Palestinians. However Palestinians are not in a rush to pressure Hamas as Palestinian group to recognize Israel at this time. Most Palestinians do not see that as symmetrical or as balanced or fair. They see it as you know we are pressured to recognize Israel when Israel at the same time only reinforcing its grip on Palestinian land."

With time running out on his political future and a Hamas-dominated Palestinian government unwilling to moderate its position, Gidi Grinstein of the Reut Institute says Ehud Olmert will likely be tempted to return to his election promise of last year - putting in place a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from much of the occupied West Bank.

"The national security objective of Israel is to end the control over the Palestinian population," Grinstein said. "This is widely agreed upon in the Israeli public and among legislators and members of the government. So the objective is to end control over the Palestinian population and we can do it either through negotiations or through unilateral measures. The prospect of negotiations at the moment are bleak. So this is why we believe the attention will be shifted again to unilateral actions."

Grinstein says Israel could move unilaterally to transfer powers to collect customs revenue, print currency and take other measures to shift responsibilities now performed by Israel to the Palestinians as a way of bringing the Palestinian territories closer to statehood. With diplomatic attention now once again focused on the Arab-Israeli dispute he says Israel could now move the peace process forward in a way that might ultimately benefit both Israelis and Palestinians.

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