A year of opportunity: Gaza/ West Bank

04 January 2008
Washington is pushing a tight timetable for a comprehensive peace settlement to the Middle East, following the Annapolis conference in late 2007. But ambitions to reach a ‘final status’ deal within a year will be frustrated. None of the key actors involved enjoy sufficient authority to push through such an agreement.

The Bush administration has had its credibility weakened by the Iraq and Iran crises, and it seems unlikely that Bush himself has the grasp of detail needed to succeed where others have failed. Meanwhile, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas can only claim to represent half of Palestine, and Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is isolated and unpopular at home.

As yet, the contours of a likely peace settlement between Palestinians and Israelis remain indistinct. The $7.4bn in financial commitments elicited at a mid-December donor meeting in Paris will help to stem the West Bank’s economic decline. But without substantive practical measures, such as allowing freedom of movement for Palestinians, it will only serve as a stop-gap measure to keep the Palestinian Authority afloat.

Under pressure from its allies, Israel will undertake a series of conciliatory measures towards the Palestinian Authority - for example, removing a series of roadblocks in the West Bank. But it is unlikely to halt the expansion of Jewish settlements. This will undermine efforts to find consensus.

The UN-appointed Middle East envoy, Tony Blair, will continue to build up Palestinian institutions, supported by an Israeli government that is now fully committed to an independent Palestinian state. But it is far from a foregone conclusion that greater prosperity will make Palestinians more willing to compromise on key final status issues.

There is no end in sight to the blockade of Gaza, now starved of all but the most essential aid. The international community will continue to isolate Hamas, but this strategy will come under growing strain as the humani-tarian crisis in the territory deepens. The possibility of renewed Palestinian civil conflict, this time including the West Bank, is real.

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