Thu, Jan 13, 2005 - Page 9 News List

Reality closes in on Palestinians

With expectations high and campaign promises many, the new Palestinian leader in fact has little room to move

By Simon Tisdall  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

Britain, the US and moderate Arab countries will begin a concerted drive this week to push Palestinian president-elect Mahmoud Abbas towards a historic post-Arafat compromise with Israel.

But what these states and their leaders want does not necessarily coincide with Palestinian needs and aspirations, or with what Abbas can deliver in practice.

Like any politician, Abbas made numerous election promises. They included the return of millions of refugees and of territory lost in 1967, and a Palestinian capital in east Jerusalem.

Ordinary voters who put their faith in the democratic process will hold Abbas to these pledges. Many Palestinians feel they have already compromised enough.

And even allowing for campaign hyperbole, Abbas's room for manuever is limited. From the moment he takes office later this week, the heat will be on. Expectations are running dangerously high.

Anxious to exert influence and prioritize the issue, Britain will soon convene a conference to help the Palestinian Authority prepare for statehood. It is also working through the EU.

But much is at stake for British Prime Minister Tony Blair personally. He is one of those who argued that the road to Jerusalem ran through Baghdad. He has expended political capital, often in vain, on persuading the US to pursue the "road map" for peace.

"If we can help the Palestinians to develop that basic infrastructure of a viable state, then [the US] is prepared to do the negotiations that make it viable in terms of its territory too," Blair claimed on BBC television last weekend.

Having mostly stood aside during his first term, US President George W. Bush now says he wants a Palestinian state by 2008.

But Bush also has other motives. His broader aim is creating a stable, democratic, pro-American Middle East, including Iraq. He is not about to seriously squeeze his main regional ally, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, whatever Blair says.

Instead, the onus in Washington and London remains on the Palestinians to be "realistic" and give ground on core issues.

"The definition of `realistic' in this context is what Israel will put up with," said Rosemary Hollis, a Middle East expert at the Chatham House think tank.

"That is so ingrained in US and British thinking that they just don't realize that it might not be possible for Abbas, because he can't bring his people with him," Hollis said.

"The Israelis don't put much store by the road map. The Palestinians could get stuck at stage two, meaning a virtual state with borders still to be defined and no guarantee they'll get what they want," she said.

Attitudes in the Arab world remain deeply ambivalent. Egypt and Jordan are broadly supportive of a compromise. But rejectionist Syria and Lebanon, backed by Iran, may encourage Abbas's hardline opponents, and hope that he fails.

A fatal Hezbollah attack launched at the weekend from southern Lebanon was their contribution to democracy.

Israel's immediate priority is a complete cessation of terrorism. Abbas, who says Intifada violence was a mistake, is a man of peace who claims -- perhaps over-optimistically -- that a lasting ceasefire can be agreed with militant factions such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Sharon's other priority is the Gaza withdrawal later this year.

Some Palestinians see this as a trap entailing the permanent loss of large swaths of the West Bank. In a Knesset speech on Gaza last autumn, Sharon exacerbated such fears. While reiterating his commitment to a two-state solution, he said: "I truly believe that this disengagement will strengthen Israel's hold over territory that is essential to our existence."

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