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A silver lining for Abbas and Olmert?

The two Mideast chiefs are weakened. But the violent Palestinian split could help them revive the peace process.

June 20, 2007|Ken Ellingwood | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — The violent divorce between the main Palestinian factions has provided a second wind for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, two weak leaders whose earlier attempts at peacemaking went nowhere.

In the days since Hamas' military triumph over Abbas' Fatah movement in the Gaza Strip, Olmert has sought to bolster Fatah by signaling his government's willingness to free tax and customs revenue that Israel has withheld from the Palestinian Authority since Hamas took control of the parliament after January 2006 elections.

Abbas, meanwhile, has shown a new assertiveness by sacking the Hamas-led government and naming a moderate new Cabinet that has won a renewal of aid from the United States and the European Union. Abbas' authority will in effect be limited to the West Bank, thus isolating Gaza, which is under control of the radical Islamist group.

Abbas has sought to capitalize on the dramatic events by calling for substantive peace talks with Israel after a lull of more than six years. A spokesman, Nabil abu Rudaineh, declared it a "new era."

Israeli and Palestinian analysts say the realignment on the Palestinian side could breathe new life into a peace process that was stalled even before widespread violence and the rise of Hamas torpedoed hope for progress.

"Israel should take the steps that it hasn't taken before," Yossi Sarid, a leftist former member of the Israeli parliament, said Tuesday on Army Radio. "The moderate Palestinians will have the upper hand and the fanatic Palestinians will be at a disadvantage."

Analysts warn, however, not to expect a dramatic breakthrough, even with the Palestinian government now led by moderates who support side-by-side Israeli and Palestinian states. Rather, they say, moderate steps are more likely.

Diana Buttu, a Palestinian lawyer and analyst, said the next rounds of bilateral talks would probably center on maintenance issues, such as when border crossings would be open, rather than root disagreements, including the fate of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees and ongoing Israeli construction in West Bank settlements.

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'A humanitarian conflict'

"Israel has successfully managed to turn this conflict from a political conflict to a humanitarian conflict," she said. "Nobody's going to talk about Jerusalem or refugees or settlements."

Hamas' absence from the recognized Palestinian government could give Olmert maneuvering room to make concessions, some analysts say. Renewed diplomatic movement could shore up Abbas and give Olmert a sorely needed political agenda.

But Olmert is too politically weak, some analysts believe, to make the kinds of concessions that would boost Abbas' standing among Palestinians, and the same political schisms that fed the brutal Palestinian infighting in Gaza last week could also wind up destabilizing the West Bank.

"It's an opportunity, and [Olmert] should talk to him," said Uri Dromi, director of international outreach at the Israel Democracy Institute. "The question is, what are the Palestinians preparing for themselves, or aspiring for?"

Olmert steadied his coalition in recent days by naming Ehud Barak, the former prime minister elected as the new chief of the Labor Party, as his defense minister. That will keep Barak's left-leaning party in the governing alliance for now.

Palestinian analyst Ghassan Khatib said that fulfilling Israel's stated goal of strengthening Abbas and other moderates would require significant concessions. Lesser measures could end up backfiring against Abbas, he said, by making the Palestinian Authority president appear complicit with policies that many Palestinians will oppose, including isolating Hamas.

"The only way to increase the public support is if the peace camp can make political progress," Khatib said. "That will require a different approach from Washington and Tel Aviv."

Few Palestinians expect that Israel will agree to make concessions regarding the Mideast's most intractable issues any time soon, however.

Israeli analysts say progress will be made only if Abbas, hobbled by indecisiveness during more than two years in office, reins in Fatah-linked militias that have carried out numerous attacks against Israelis and ensures order in the West Bank.

"The major thing that needs to happen is for Abbas to consolidate his political and security control in the West Bank. That means Fatah needs to get its act together," said Gidi Grinstein, president of the Reut Institute, an Israeli think tank.

Grinstein said the chances for progress had vastly improved as a result of Hamas' takeover in Gaza and the subsequent naming of an emergency Palestinian government run by Salam Fayyad, a politically independent economist respected by the United States and Israel.

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