Mideast peace process in doubt as new year nears (Yearender - 12)

December 27th, 2008 - 10:22 am ICT by IANS  

Tel Aviv/Ramallah, Dec 27 (DPA) The Middle East peace process is hanging by a thread as 2009 is nearing - just one year after negotiations were revived following seven years of violence.Israel is heading for elections Feb 10, with hawkish former premier Benjamin Netanyahu of the Likud, who opposes the peace process in its current form, currently leading in opinion polls.

Meanwhile, in the Palestinian autonomous areas, President Mahmoud Abbas and his bitter rival, the Islamist Hamas movement which rules the Gaza Strip, are speeding towards another head-on collision.

Eighteen months after Hamas violently seized sole control of the Gaza Strip by overpowering Abbas’ security forces, the Gaza-West Bank split runs the risk of developing deeper rifts.

And in Israel, even if the centrist Kadima party of Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni wins the Israeli elections, and even if she reaches some kind of agreement with Abbas and his secular Fatah party, Kadima has vowed to put off implementation of any agreement until Gaza returns to Abbas’ control.

About the only thing that is certain is that, 15 years after the Oslo interim peace accords with Israel, the Palestinians will have to wait longer for their state.

The new year will start with Abbas’ four-year term as the democratically-elected Palestinian president expiring Jan 9.

Despite this, Abbas has said he will stay on for some time. Hamas has vowed it will no longer recognise him after his term expires. Last ditch attempts by Egypt and other Arab states to reconcile the two rival Palestinian camps have faltered so far.

Abbas has said he will give Hamas until the end of 2008 to return to the dialogue table. If it does not, he will call presidential and legislative elections - several months late and several months early respectively - so that they can be held simultaneously. The polls are expected between April and June, or, under Palestinian law, three months after he issues his decree.

However, Abbas will not be able to hold elections in Gaza without cooperation from Hamas. That means, barring a last-minute compromise - his only choice will be to hold elections solely in the West Bank. Such a move would, in effect, cement the West Bank-Gaza split.

Both sides might benefit from waiting until after the Israeli poll.

Abbas, 73, would have much less to lose from reconciling with Hamas and forming a unity government if Netanyahu wins. The Likud leader has said he would talk to Abbas about economic development of the Palestinian autonomous areas if elected, but that he would also break off the current peace process, launched at the US-sponsored summit in Annapolis, Maryland one year ago.

“Annapolis is based on (negotiations on) Jerusalem and refugees and these are two facts which Netanyahu rejects,” his spokeswoman, Dina Libster, told DPA.

Even if Livni is elected, no magic peace agreement is likely the next day. She has stressed all too often that she opposes “hasty” negotiations. But she wants to continue the Annapolis process, which she initiated. She still serves as Israel’s chief negotiator.

Netanyahu and Livni are running neck to neck, but she has lost her initial lead over him in recent opinion polls.

Regardless of the outcome of the Israeli poll, Abbas’ dependence on foreign financial aid could block any reconciliation with Hamas. A unity government between the two could mean Fatah could also face the international isolation Hamas has suffered since Hamas won the Palestinian parliamentary elections in January 2006.

As for the third player, the US, Barack Obama’s election as the next US president generated high hopes for a fresh start in the Middle East.

Only time will tell, however, how high the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be on his list of priorities. Most experts expect Obama - who will be the 11th US president to try to broker peace in the Middle East since Israel was founded 60 years ago - to be too preoccupied with other burning issues, not least the global financial crisis.

Obama’s choice of Hillary Clinton as secretary of state could also be a factor. Clinton caused a stir in May 1998 when she said she supported the creation of a Palestinian state before this had become official US policy. But she is also considered a “friend of Israel”, as Olmert called her when he congratulated her on her nomination.

Some commentators have speculated that she might want to finish the work of her husband, Bill Clinton, who devoted significant energy to a Mideast peace treaty when he was president. At the same time, as one Israeli television commentator put it, she has someone at home to remind her how one can “burn one’s fingers” in the Middle East.

The Oslo interim accords should have resulted in the establishment of a Palestinian state by September 1998 - when Benjamin Netanyahu held the premiership and Bill Clinton was serving as president.

A decade on, it could be deja vu: A Clinton brokering on behalf of the US, and Netanyahu in the Israeli prime minister’s office.

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