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Obama policy key to future Israeli-Palestinian peace talks

By Zhang Yanyang and Xu Gang, Xinhua,

Jerusalem : As Israel prepares for February’s general election and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ term nears its end in January, U.S. President-elect Barack Obama’s involvement in the peace process will play a crucial role in directing future Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, analysts said.

While the one-year anniversary of the 2007 Annapolis peace conference passed with no conclusive agreement in sight, Israel, the United States and the Palestinians all accepted that there would not be a peace accord before U.S. President George W. Bush leaves office in January.

Conflict resolution should begin with lessons learned from the failure of Oslo pact, Menachem Klein, professor of political studies at Bar Ilan University told Xinhua, noting that it was crucial for Israel and the Palestinians to reach an agreement as early as possible and for the United States to guide the process.

“The U.S. role would be to bring the sides to agree on the status of a final agreement … to accept the U.S. idea that can produce an agreement,” Klein said, adding that the United States should push both sides to gather support through elections or referendum to back up the agreement.

“I am not sure Obama has in mind such a strategy. If the White House begins again with a strategy that begins a process of negotiations, it will leave too much time for spoilers,” Klein said.

Obama, who visited Israel in July, vowed that he would not wait for a few years in his first or second term to broker a deal.

“What we need from Obama is … an early start,” Ziad Abu Amr, a Palestinian political analyst and former foreign minister of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA), told Xinhua, adding that the peace process under the Bush administration suffered from late involvement.

“We need a more balanced approach, a more constructive engagement approach. Perhaps some pressure needs to be exerted,” Abu Amr said, noting that the United States never talked about what was needed but rather focused on what was possible.

“The new American administration should focus on resolving the conflict and not managing the crisis,” he said.

Abu Amr warned, however, of the danger of setting high expectations that could not be met.

“One has to be careful because we need to remember that President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice set high expectations and the result was nil in terms of reaching an actual agreement,” he said.

Though Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who will remain in power as caretaker premier before the general election, has declared his intention to pursue peace until his last day in office, public interest has gradually shifted towards upcoming election, and opinion polls have placed Israel’s right-wing Likud party ahead of the ruling Kadima party.

The coup of Hamas militants in the Gaza strip following the disengagement in 2005, continuous rocket attacks on nearby Israeli cities and the captivity of an Israeli soldier by Hamas since June2006 have pushed many Israelis to support a more hardline approach.

Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who leads the Likud party, has expressed his opposition to peace proposals made by Olmert and noted his intention to separate peace efforts from territorial issues, which would imply the end of the Annapolis process.

“He has a different approach. An economic approach to the peace process with which he wants to focus on reviving the Palestinian economy instead of going to peace negotiations on the final status issues,” Abu Amr said.

“The problem is not economic revival in the Palestinian areas,” he said, noting that villages in the West Bank were doing relatively well in economy. “The real problem is the political problem and Netanyahu wants to stay away from political negotiations.”

“If Foreign Minister and Kadima Chairwoman Tzipi Livni wins, I think we will see a continuation of the process, which started in Annapolis,” Abu Amr said, adding that the frame of reference for the peace process were established in Annapolis.

He noted that the two-state solution and the six points, i.e. the status of Jerusalem, the fate of Palestinian refugees, final borders, Israeli settlements, water and security, should serve as the frame of reference for future negotiations.

Most analysts believed, however, that the U.S. role and Israeli support for Annapolis would only become relevant once there was a clear Palestinian partner to negotiate with.

They noted that the rift between the nationalist Fatah movement in the West Bank and religious Hamas militants in Gaza thwarted any chance for a conclusive peace agreement.

“I don’t think any agreement can be implemented in the West Bank and Gaza as long as Hamas remains in control of Gaza and the Palestinians are not united,” Abu Amr said, adding it was a priority to see the Palestinians united, which would then make it possible to implement the peace process.

“If Fatah and Hamas could get together again and come up with some sort of cooperation I think there would be an opportunity for change,” Dahlia Golan, professor of government at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, told Xinhua.

She noted that some minimal cooperation between Fatah and Hamas could be possible, as Hamas had once been close to accepting the idea that the PNA would be allowed to negotiate with Israel if a referendum of the Palestinian people follows.