Cover Story

Making or breaking peace

"Making or breaking peace" Continued...

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

Most recently, in an attempt to shore up support for Abbas against Hamas, the Israeli Cabinet took the unusual step of voting to release 90 Palestinian prisoners in a decision timed to coincide with Ramadan. Hamas leaders accused Fatah of collaborating with Israel (none of the released prisoners were members of Hamas), and a hard reality began to sink in on both sides: Attempts to bolster your allies can inadvertently turn into a public-relations campaign for your enemy.

Longtime broker and current Israeli president Simon Peres recognizes that the stakes are high: "There is a window of opportunity, and I say-smilingly-the window is made of glass and we have to be careful not to break it."

Israel's indefinite borders have plagued the prospects for peace in the region for decades. Ross, who served as the U.S broker in the Middle East under former presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton, harshly criticized former Palestinian Prime Minister Yassar Arafat for failing to accept the proposals offered during the months following the failed peace summit at Camp David in 2000 and 2001. The plan offered Palestinians 97 percent of the West Bank, all of Gaza, a capital in the Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem and billions in international aid.

Palestinians had an opportunity to accept a similar proposal in 1947: The UN Partition Plan called for a two-state solution with Palestine encompassing an even greater portion of land than currently proposed (one that would have left Israelis with two disjointed territories rather than the Palestinians).

Israel reluctantly accepted the Partition Plan, while the Arab nations rejected it, calling for the complete destruction of the Jewish state and launching the region into a full-scale war. Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon led the charge, but the Israeli forces gained the advantage, capturing a greater allotment of land and officially establishing the nation of Israel in 1948.

During the Six Day War of 1967, Israeli forces gained control over the West Bank and Gaza, and negotiations since then have focused on returning these territories to the Palestinians. Israelis, wary of compromising national security, have built numerous settlements in the territories (classified as illegal under international law) and have established security fences, checkpoints, and border closings that have added to the ire of the Palestinians.

Although Israel withdrew its settlements and military outposts from Gaza in 2005, many accuse the government of inhibiting full Palestinian autonomy through stringent border patrols.

While President Bush, Rice, Olmert, and Abbas prepare for November's meeting, expectations waver and few are optimistic. Abbas is pushing for final-status agreements on borders, Jerusalem, and the fate of Palestinian refugees, and Rice is touting a meeting that "advances the cause of a Palestinian state." Israeli leaders are hoping for vague declarations, and Arab leaders-despite a general invitation from the Bush administration to the upcoming conference-are hesitant to get involved in talks if they are "only gimmicks."

Ross says that talks focusing on final-status agreements that no one really believes can be implemented any time soon could actually backfire, boosting the popularity of Hamas. His advice for Rice: "The secretary of state is going to need to make sure that she prepares this meeting very well, and it shouldn't be held until such a time when she knows what the results are going to be," Ross said. "The right thing to do at this point-and this is a measure of how things have changed-is diplomacy when possible."

Toameh says Israel should avoid making bold concessions. "Israel should just sit and wait. Don't repeat the mistake of unilateralism when Israel left Gaza to Hamas and Islamic Jihad and al-Qaeda affiliated groups," he said. "The Palestinians need to get their act together and find a way to resolve their problems, and then Israel can talk with them. But under the current circumstances, if I was Israel I wouldn't pull out from one inch of land because there is no strong and reliable partner on the other side."

But even if Israel refrains from difficult concessions during the upcoming peace talks, the problem of handling Hamas still remains. Israel has threatened to cut power and electricity to Gaza in an attempt to curb the onslaught of rocket attacks on southern Israel, garnering criticism for "collective punishment" of Gazans already on the verge of a humanitarian crisis. "What they should do is make this clear: How can we expect to provide electricity and water to people who basically sanction attacks against us on a day-to-day basis?" Ross said.

For now, Israel is hesitant to authorize a full-scale incursion into Gaza, knowing that getting out is much more difficult than going in. And threats from the north and east have diverted some attention away from the crisis. An Israeli air raid into Syria last month led to numerous speculations about the nuclear ambitions of Syria, technically still at war with Israel. The Iranian threat also is magnified now that the deputy commander of Iran's air force claims that plans have been drafted to bomb Israel should the Jewish state strike first.

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