By Walid Salem (for Safe Democracy)

Walid Salem affirms that many analysts are speculating whether there is a realistic possibility of creating a Palestinian state. There are six different beliefs of what may occur in the short term to both Israel and Palestine, however, Salem thinks that the split in the Palestinian vision of the future clarifies the impasse of the process to form a Palestinian National Unity government. He also considers that the peace process is inextricably linked to Hamas‘ move forward. Nevertheless, there are always alternate possibilities and whatever happens; peace in the Middle East does have reason to hope.

Walid Salem is a political analyst and the director of Panorama, the Centre for the Dissemination of Democracy and Community Development, East Jerusalem office.

IN THE AFTERMATH OF THE WAR IN LEBANON, many analysts are turning to Palestine and wondering whether the hope for the creation of a Palestinian state is still alive.

In Israel, there are three main currents of interpretation.

Many view Israel’s constant withdrawals as inefficient and, in many cases, counterproductive. Israel withdrew from Gaza and rocket attacks began to fall on the South, Israel withdrew from Lebanon and Hezbollah’s missiles pummelled the north; the case for withdrawal and peace is losing ground. And as the cycle of violence continues, the Israeli right wing has begun to rise, advocating the reconstruction of Israel’s capacity to deter its enemies with force.

Others in Israeli politics are looking for a partial peace with either Syria or the Palestinians, under the assumption that two complete peace treaties at once would be too much to swallow for the Israeli society. And a third, small minority in Israel, calls for a comprehensive peace process through Madrid II echoing the calls of the French President Chirac, and Igur Ivanow, Minister of Russian Foreign Affairs.

In Palestine, three separate visions of the future have also arisen since the War in Lebanon.

One vision, mainly propagated by Islamic Jihad and sectors of Hamas, calls for the creation of a Hezbollah-like fighting model in the West Bank and Gaza. Another, led by Fatah and Palestinian President Abu Mazen, advocates the reliance on the UN Security Council in reviving the peace process. And a third vision, calls for an interim arrangement of Hudna defined by Prime Minister Ismail Hanniyeh, in his article in The Washington Post (7/11/06), as a reciprocal cessation of hostility between the two sides, in an agreement upon time. The Hamas government currently in power assumes that a full peace with Israel will not be possible. The more feasible possibility is the agreement of a reciprocal Hudna.

Each one of the three Palestinian approaches holds the possibility to flourish under the right political situation, and gain the majority of public support. For instance, if a clear political possibility arises for the construction of a Palestinian state, then it is likely that the second position will prevail. But if there is no movement in the political process, the Palestinians will witness a strong competition between the first position of open Jihad, and the third position of an interim Hudna.

The current stalemate in the peace process has given Israel free reign to act unilaterally. As Israel continues its settlement expansion in the West Bank, the construction of the dividing wall, the closing of the Jordan valley, the isolation of Gaza, and the continuous bloody reprisals and house demolitions; many Palestinians have responded with more and more extremist tactics, such as the rocket launches against Israel and the kidnapping of the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

As for the Palestinian government, Hamas continues to be reluctant to accept the Quartet conditions necessary for peace: the recognition of Israel, the discontinuance of violence, and the recognition of all previous PLO-Israel agreements.

Many Hamas leaders believe that the previous Oslo process should serve as a lesson to the Palestinian people about the dangers of making concessions to Israel. In many Hamas leaders’ minds, Abu Mazen presented himself as a partner for peace, and Israel ignored him and acted unilaterally, independent of all agreements. Hamas will not come to the negotiating table until Israel gives real proof that it supports the Palestinian right to statehood, and the end of the occupation.

The split in the Palestinian vision of the future clarifies the impasse of the process to form a Palestinian National Unity government. Ten days ago Hanniyeh agreed in his talks with Abu Mazen to recognize the Arab Peace Initiative as a basis for peace, promising to respect all the agreements that the PLO has signed. Immediately following this decision, the Hamas Political Bureau asked Hanniyeh to withdraw his approval. Hamas, they claimed, would accept the Arab Legitimacy but not the Arab Initiative; they would accept a ten year Hudna with Israel, but not the recognition of Israel.

Hamas thus turned the table, embarrassed Ismail Hanniyeh, and froze the formation of a National Unity Government. Yet, there is still room for negotiation. Hanniyeh has adapted to the situation and is now calling for a Palestinian state along the 1967 borders, as well as a Hudna with Israel. It is uncertain whether this moderate position will be accepted.

With all of these developments, it is becoming clear that the peace process is inextricably linked to Hamas’ move forward. And so it was heartening to hear Tony Blair’s statement, a few weeks ago, that the establishment of a Palestinian state would be his top priority in his remaining time in office.

Another encouraging move was made by the EU in supporting the establishment of a Palestinian National Unity Government that meets the Quartet conditions. (Notice the word choice here: that meets the Quartet Conditions rather than complies with them).

Hamas from its side has issued a statement welcoming the EU’s support.

Yet, it is uncertain if any substance lies behind these international announcements of commitment. The US and Israel turned down the proposition to take up previous Israeli-Palestinian talks in the UN. Instead, a road map peace plan has been presented to Palestinian President Abu Mazen providing for provisional borders of a Palestinian state, with the exclusion of Jerusalem, and no right of return for Palestinian refugees.

Abu Mazen may accept the offer, but under the provision that a timetable be set to convert the provisional borders into the creation of an independent state. But Israelis and Americans have repeatedly responded negatively to the idea of a timetable. The construction of a state with provisional borders, they claim, is itself subject to Abu Mazen’s capability to dismantle the terrorist groups.

But even if Abu Mazen agrees to the road map plan, it will be impossible for him to convince the rest of the Palestinian government to acquiesce. And within Israel, Olmert may have considerable trouble pushing through a plan to create a provisional Palestinian state. With the growing strength of the right wing, the reluctance of settlers to evacuate, and Olmert’s 7 per cent public approval rating, Israel may be hard to convince.

With the difficulty of coming to an agreement, the extremist voices within Palestine are growing. In order to reverse the dangerous growth of the fundamentalist movement, the Israelis and Americans must be convinced to implement a comprehensive solution that deals with the core issues of the conflict once and for all. This may be the only way to weaken the extremist voices, and give power to the Arab and Palestinian moderates and liberal democrats.

In the meantime, there are always alternate possibilities. Perhaps Abu Mazen will negotiate with Israel through back channels, and bring the Madrid II idea into effect. Maybe the anticipated visit of President Bush to the region will rally some support for peace.

Whatever happens, peace in the Middle East does have reason to hope.

Safe Democracy would like to invite you to subscribe to the weekly electronic newsletter, with analysis and commentaries from our international experts (click here).