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Daily Archives: January 1, 2008

Mideast peace off to rocky start in 2008

Israel and the Palestinians head into 2008 pledging to seal an ever-elusive peace deal by the end of the year, but with their revived negotiations off to a rocky start.The talks held since the two sides relaunched the Middle East peace process after a nearly seven-year hiatus have been overshadowed by expansion of Israeli settlements, with Palestinians warning that the tentative peace negotiations could be derailed altogether."We have begun negotiations and they face obstacles, the most prominent of which is the issue of settlements, which has held us back for so long," Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas said recently.Since the peace talks were revived at a conference in the US city of Annapolis in late November, two expansions of Israeli settlements — which the international community considers illegal — have been announced, earning the ire of the Palestinians and Israel's main ally Washington.Aiming to shore up the tentative peace efforts, US President George W. Bush is due to visit the region in January.The latest stab at ending the intractable decades-old Middle East conflict was paradoxically energised six months ago by a Palestinian group firmly opposed to the revived peace process — Hamas.The Islamist movement's violent takeover of the Gaza Strip in June gave impetus to efforts that saw Israel and the Palestinians revive their talks and pledge to reach a final status deal by the end of 2008.The Gaza takeover led Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas to sack a Hamas-led government boycotted by Israel and the West and appoint a new cabinet headed by internationally respected economist Salam Fayyad.After Abbas's move, the West lifted a ban on direct aid to the Palestinians, Israel began to once again deal with the government, and the United States boosted its efforts to revive the peace process that collapsed after the failed Camp David talks in 2000.Washington's efforts culminated in a November conference in Annapolis, Maryland, at which Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Abbas formally the peace talks.But with the two sides as far apart as ever on the most divisive issues of their conflict, with Palestinians split in two following the Hamas rout in Gaza and with Israel's right-wing opposed to concessions, the peace efforts are not at all certain to succeed."The most important challenge in the negotiations is the fundamentalist parties on both sides," a member of the Palestinian negotiating team, Yasser Abed Rabbo, said.Abbas and Olmert have hailed the revived peace push as a historic chance to end the nearly six decades of violence.But both leaders face firm opposition to any major concessions from their respective extremists and have sought to keep hopes from soaring too high, aware that when the last US-sponsored talks collapsed at Camp David in 2000 the region erupted into new violence.The two sides have not made any progress on the thorniest issues that have sunk previous peace efforts — borders, refugees, Jerusalem and settlements.The Palestinians want Israel to withdraw from all Palestinian land occupied in the 1967 Middle East war, recognise the right of return for refugees, make east Jerusalem capital of their future state.Israel wants to keep its major settlements in the occupied West Bank, has ruled out recognising the right of return and has said it may cede sovereignty over only a few neighbourhoods in east Jerusalem.On the issue of settlements, the Palestinians want a halt to all settlement activity — including so-called natural growth of existing blocks and outposts in east Jerusalem.Israel meanwhile does not consider expansion of east Jerusalem settlements as settlement activity as it has annexed the city — a move not recognised by the international community.Gaza is another crisis everyone is aware of but no one talks about.Hamas is vigorously opposed to negotiations with Israel — whose right to exist the Islamist movement does not even recognise — and has railed against Abbas for reviving the talks.The fact that Abbas does not control the territory sandwiched between Israel and Egypt raises concerns about how he will be able to implement any agreements that he may reach with Israelis in the walled-off coastal strip.Olmert has warned that Israel will not implement a final peace deal until the Palestinian leadership stops militants in Gaza from firing rockets and mortars."Don't hold your breath, peace isn't going to be the result of this story," Israel's tabloid Maariv wrote recently. "The conditions haven't ripened and are still a long way from ripening, so all we're left with is a facade." 


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