Sharmila Devi
The Financial Times
October 19, 2007 - 4:40pm

As a series of high-profile international visitors, including Condoleezza Rice and Tony Blair, traipse through the Holy Land, Palestinians are looking on with a mixture of indifference and despair.

The US secretary of state and former British prime minister are spear-heading efforts to prod Israel and the Palestinians towards meaningful peace talks and reform of Palestinian institutions and economy.

But Palestinians say their lack of optimism is based on internal shortcomings including lack of leadership as well as Israeli actions on the ground that are consistently backed by the US.

There is an overwhelming belief that the US administration in its final year in office is spurred more by a desire to form a united front against Iranian nuclear ambitions and create a legacy other than the quagmire in Iraq, rather than justice and viable statehood for the Palestinians.

Ms Rice on Wednesday visited Christian sites in Bethlehem, passing through the high concrete wall that forms part of Israel’s separation barrier around the West Bank city. Mr Blair, who took over as international envoy, has also been spending time acquainting himself with the Palestinian reality in the occupied territories.

“These moves [by Ms Rice and Mr Blair] are not unimportant but I don’t want us just to become a university for people to learn how bad things are in Palestine,” said Sam Bahour, a leading businessman in Ramallah. “Palestinians are beyond statements. The Palestinian reality is overwhelming any real hope.”

Israeli and Palestinian negotiators are trying to prepare a joint document of principles before a US-sponsored peace meeting that is likely to take place next month or December. Ms Rice, meanwhile, is trying to bridge the vast gaps between the two sides on practically every issue relating to Palestinian statehood.

“Palestinians can clearly see the divergent interests and expectations between the US and Israel on one side and the Palestinians on the other,” said Diana Buttu, a former legal adviser to the Palestinian Liberation Organisation. “Israel wants any joint document to be vague on territory but specific on the Palestinians giving up the right of return [for refugees]. The Palestinians want specifics on territory but to remain vague on the right of return.”

Palestinians say they have little confidence in Ahmed Qurei, also known as Abu Ala, the ex-prime minister who is leading the team of Palestinian negotiators.

His apparent comeback after his Fatah party lost parliamentary elections to Hamas, the Islamic movement, last year has left many Palestinians feeling bemused at best. “Abu Ala’s negotiating team failed in the old Oslo era so people have a huge lack of confidence,” said Mr Bahour.

The Oslo accords of the 1990s gave the Palestinians limited self-rule but failed to specify a limit to Israeli settlement expansion in the occupied territories.

A Palestinian close to the talks between Israel, the Palestinians and the US said US officials were unimpressed with Mr Qurei and only grudgingly accepted him.

He is part of the “old guard” Fatah leadership the US had wanted replaced as part of Fatah reforms. These ambitions, along with the drive for democracy in the Middle East, were dropped as the US and Israel sought to defeat Hamas, which dominates the Gaza Strip.

Mustafa Barghouthi, a former Palestinian information minister, said in the time between George W. Bush, US president, announcing the peace meeting on July 16 and last Monday, the Israeli military had killed 104 Palestinians, in-cluding 12 children. Yesterday an Israeli soldier and a Palestinian were killed in the Gaza Strip.

Mahmoud Abbas, Palestinian president, said time was running out for an agreement with Israel. “It’s impossible to go to the [US] conference at any price,” he said after meeting Ms Rice.

The Palestinian close to the recent talks said Mr Abbas would likely survive any failure of the US- sponsored meeting but his Fatah party would increase pressure to wrest power from Salam Fayyad, the independent prime minister who has little control over the negotiations with Israel.

The Palestinian said Mr Fayyad believed the minimum requirement for success in the talks was for the US to exact from Israel a freeze on settlement construction but hopes were not high.

Mr Bahour said: “If these talks fail, it’s unlikely there would be an organised third uprising [intifada]. But acts of despair by individuals can be even more fearful.”


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