Cover Story
GETTING SERIOUS: Israeli soldiers guard one side of a separation barrier while Muslims prepare for prayers near the West Bank town of Ramallah on the first Friday of Ramadan, Sept. 14.

Making or breaking peace

The window of opportunity is made of glass, notes one Israeli leader, but U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is determined to find a Middle East breakthrough

Issue: "Mission: Impossible?," Oct. 13, 2007

U.S. diplomats arrived in Israel to jump-start peace talks during September's High Holy Days-The Jewish New Year followed by 10 days of repentance and culminating in Yom Kippur-the one day of the year when radio and TV broadcasts are silenced, planes are grounded, and streets are virtually empty as observant Jews fast and seek forgiveness for transgressions.

Given that the Jewish High Holy Days coincide this year with Ramadan, a month-long Islamic fast ending mid-October, it's easy to see why diplomats might smell peace and reconciliation in the air.

But the headlines across the region paint a different picture. The fresh onslaught of rocket attacks from Islamist-ruled Gaza, waning faith in local leadership, and cryptic scuffles with Syria are a better picture of relations between Israel and her neighbors.

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So why has the Bush administration, and in particular Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, picked now to schedule a Mideast peace summit-set to take place next month in the United States- to address one of the most explosive conflicts in the world? Isn't fixing Iraq enough?

Rice toured the region this month with optimism few leaders emulated, and analysts say she'll have to prepare well or her efforts could result in bolstering the credibility of Hamas and its hostile cronies in the region rather than leaders committed to peace.

"One of the worst things would be to raise expectations and have a meeting that would produce nothing," said Dennis Ross, former U.S. envoy to the Middle East under Presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton. "That would end up helping Hamas rather than hurting Hamas."

Middle East Peace accords have a history of being derailed, and no one expects the process to be easy. But Ross and others say that political shifts in Palestinian affairs over the past three years have added a treacherous twist to an already long road.

When the Islamist group Hamas entered the political arena in January 2006 by overrunning Fatah and winning a majority of parliamentary seats, a chasm was created that eventually resulted in two separate Palestinian entities-Fatah and Hamas.

After months of fighting between the two rivals, Fatah forces were forced out of Gaza in June, fleeing to the West Bank where Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas abruptly disbanded the government and declared a state of emergency. Hamas now controls the Gaza Strip-an impoverished coastal region from which Israel withdrew in 2005-and is isolated from the international community.

Israeli intelligence sources claim Hamas has begun building underground fortifications similar to those fashioned by Hezbollah and has smuggled 40 tons of explosives into Gaza since its hostile takeover of the coastal strip in June.

Classified as a terrorist organization by several nations-including the United States-Hamas remains unwilling to accept the existence of Israel and has done little to prevent the endless stream of crude rockets sailing out of Gaza into Israel.

A September rocket attack on an army base in southern Israel wounded 70 Israeli soldiers, prompting Israeli leaders to threaten a cutback of power and fuel supplies to Gaza. Israel has already sealed Gaza's borders, allowing only humanitarian aid to enter the fledgling region.

One of the questions facing international peacemakers now is whether Abbas has what it takes to handle Hamas and at the same time lead his people into a lasting peace agreement with Israel. "There's a readiness to support him but not a conviction that he'll entirely do what's necessary," Ross said. "He's never had the status of Arafat, who was an icon."

Arab-Israeli Khaled Abu Toameh, a Palestinian affairs correspondent for The Jerusalem Post, says 30 percent to 35 percent of Palestinians who voted for Hamas in the 2006 elections did so as a vote of protest against the corruption of Fatah. "Immediately after the elections, the international community should have come to Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah and told them they lost the election because they are thieves," Toameh wrote. Now, with the Hamas takeover in Gaza, Abbas is "hesitant and weak and unwilling to carry out serious decisions," said Toameh, "so people no longer relate to the Palestinian Authority in a serious fashion."

Fatah officials, said Toameh, should start over: "Rebuild their institutions, reform themselves, get rid of the corruption, and come up with a new list of candidates. Then run in another free and democratic election and offer the Palestinians a better alternative to Hamas."

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert hasn't fared much better in public polls since losing credibility over last year's war in Lebanon. "The Israeli public was prepared in Lebanon to grant the government an extensive license. People were prepared to live in shelters for a long time. They just wanted to take care of the problem," Ross told WORLD. The government's stated mission in going to war against Hezbollah in Lebanon was to free its two captured soldiers and destroy the Islamist terror network. Neither was accomplished.


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