Rami Khouri
The Daily Star (Opinion)
March 19, 2008 - 7:31pm

The likelihood of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks making real progress this year is very slim, but that does not keep the parties from meeting and making hopeful statements. US President George W. Bush's planned trip to Israel in May looms for many as a critical moment when any progress toward a permanent peace accord will have to be clear.

Events on the ground suggest that Washington will continue to go through the motions of mediating a peace accord, without necessarily exercising its full political clout in an evenhanded manner to help bring one about. This was suggested by its recent performance in the tripartite committee established at Annapolis to monitor implementation of the "road map" to peace, particularly the compliance of Israelis and Palestinians with specific political and security conditions.

The committee held its first meeting in Jerusalem last week, chaired by American General William Fraser, who was immediately insulted by the Israeli decision to send a mid-level Defense Ministry official, Amos Gilad, while the Palestinians sent Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. The Americans are playing their critical arbiter's role in a very low-key manner that borders on nonchalance, guaranteeing failure.

Not surprisingly, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert repeated Monday that his government plans to continue building and expanding settlements in the Occupied East Jerusalem area. This is likely to be met soon by a stronger Palestinian response than merely protesting Israeli colonization and American nonchalance. The problem for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is that his standing with his own people is low and that the Americans and Israelis respect him even less.

Only a more credible Palestinian negotiating position can change this dynamic, and this in turn requires that Hamas and Fatah rejoin forces in some sort of national unity government. They are holding talks indirectly in Yemen this week to achieve such a goal, partly motivated by the realization that the status quo is helping Hamas consolidate and even strengthen its standing in Palestinian society. Partly this is due to popular respect for its position of defiance and resistance against Israel, as opposed to the Palestinian Authority's spineless acquiescence and pathetic pleading.

The fact that Hamas - for the third time in three years - seems to have pushed Israel to the point of indirectly negotiating a cease-fire works in its favor with Palestinians. This is reflected in the latest poll by the respected Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PCPSR), showing that in the West Bank and Gaza Strip there has been a significant shift in political sentiment in Hamas' favor. The change registered by the poll includes several important elements: greater popularity for Hamas and its leadership; rising support for the positions and legitimacy of Hamas; and even greater satisfaction with its performance, despite the continued fighting with Israel and the political-economic boycott of Hamas by most Western states and Israel.

If presidential elections were to take place today, the poll suggests that Abbas and the prime minister of the Hamas government, Ismail Haniyya, would be virtually tied: 46 percent for Abbas and 47 percent for Haniyya (this compares to last December, when Abbas received 56 percent and Haniyya 37 percent). Hamas' popularity probably reflects several recent developments, including the continued fighting between Hamas and Israel and, according to the PCPSR, "the failure of the Annapolis process in positively affecting daily life of Palestinians in the West Bank, in stopping Israeli settlement activities, or in producing progress in final status negotiations."

These developments, the PCPSR also argued, "managed to present Hamas as successful in breaking the siege and as a victim of Israeli attacks. These also presented Palestinian President Abbas and his Fatah faction as impotent, unable to change the bitter reality in the West Bank or [end] Israeli occupation through diplomacy."

If a cease-fire takes hold soon in Gaza, Hamas' popularity will rise even further, which will give it a stronger hand in any renewed Palestinian national-unity government. This will create conditions that will seriously challenge the prevailing policy in Israel, Europe and the United States of boycotting Hamas and trying to bring it down by supporting Fatah.

Bush is likely to ignore these realities, preferring to cling to his romantic notion of moving toward peace by supporting the current Olmert-Abbas talks - regardless of Israel's plain message that it does not take those talks seriously, will not honor US third-party mediation and arbitration, and will continue to attack, kill and besiege Palestinians and build colonial settlements anywhere it wants on occupied Palestinian land.

A growing number of Palestinians seem to be saying that they want to resist Israel's colonization and the murder of Palestinians and force Israel to accept a truce. That would appear to be the more realistic route to fruitful progress for all, rather than the Olmert-Abbas peace talks that are characterized by insults and indifference.


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