By Daoud Kuttab
In a surprise meeting with journalists gathered at the home of Jordanian Information Minister Nasser Judeh, King Abdullah sounded worried about the Palestinian situation. The coming six months may witness a major breakthrough. If not, we will be in for another long hiatus.
One issue that seems to be on the way to resolution, however, is the Palestinian national unity government. Resolving the deadlock in the Palestinian government, especially in regard to accepting previous agreements implying the de-facto recognition of Israel. That would certainly solve a major problem delaying international aid to the Palestinians.
Once a government that recognizes Israel (directly or indirectly) wins the support of the majority Hamas parliament, we will be in a first-ever situation in which the majority of Palestinians are on record as supporting the two-state solution.
With this problem resolved and President Mahmoud Abbas in the presidency given jurisdiction to negotiate on behalf of the Palestinians, Israel will have no excuse not to deal with them itself.
Furthermore, with US mid-term elections behind us and President George W. Bush not able to run for another term, American foreign policy (which is the responsibility of the White House) in the region may become more invigorated. The fact that Bush boasts that he publicly supports the idea of a Palestinian state may incline him to pay closer attention to how history will record his government.
In his last two years in government, and with so many failures in the region (read Iraq), the Bush administration will likely try to make a last-ditch effort to solve the Palestinian problem. Historically, progress on the Arab-Israeli conflict has often been made during the last years of a two-term president. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz might also use this window of opportunity. Olmert’s idea of the convergence plan was scrapped after the failure of unilateralism in Gaza and Lebanon. Peretz was expected to be a dove, but he has lost a lot of his own party’s support because of his handling of the losing war in Lebanon.
In this context Peretz can be a positive element if the pieces of the puzzle fall into place. Even on the security front there are reasons to believe that Israel has exhausted the limits of what it can do militarily. The fact that what the Israelis call the “security fence” has been partly completed (complete with crossing points that bear some of the trappings of an international border) can also be an element in encouraging them to take some steps for peace.
The Arab countries, more than ever, are united behind the Saudi peace plan, which has been getting a new lease on life these days. Moderate leaders are looking for a way to reduce the anger throughout the Arab and Muslim world against America and the West by increasing their push for a resolution of the Palestinian issue. Having said all that, there are still many obstacles. The Lieberman factor – the entry of Avigdor Lieberman and Yisrael Beiteinu into the Olmert government – has to be taken into consideration as a major obstacle to any long-term resolution. On the Palestinian side, the potential spoiler group in the coming months/years will most likely be Islamic Jihad. If it continues to stay out of the political arena its actions might be harmful to any progress.
The sad events of past week in Gaza, with the terrible killings of innocent civilians in Beit Hanoun, do move politicians for a day or two. What is needed, however, is for these events to serve as a catalyst to jump-start badly needed and long-awaited progress on the peace process. Palestinian suffering continues to poison the air in the entire region. It is high time that the Palestinians and other Arabs were given a reason for optimism and hope.