Battle fatigue helps push for peace in Middle East

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Israelis and Palestinians are succumbing to battle fatigue after 32 months of violence that has claimed 762 Israeli lives and at least 2,274 Palestinian. A new, more accommodating public mood offers their respective Prime Ministers, Ariel Sharon and Mahmoud Abbas, the elbow room to negotiate their way along the international road-map for peace, which both have endorsed.

After what the leaders described as their "positive" meeting in Jerusalem on Thursday, officials from both sides are working on a statement of mutual recognition for the three-way summit President George Bush is convening on Wednesday in the Jordanian port city of Aqaba.

Israelis, in a poll yesterday in the daily Ma'ariv, voted two to one to end the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Citing a taboo-breaking statement by Mr Sharon, the pollsters used the word "occupation". The respondents did not demur, coming out 62-32 for evacuation with 6 per cent undecided.

The dovish trend was consistent, with 55 per cent backing the road-map and only 33 per cent opposed. The plan, crafted by the United States, European Union, Russia and the United Nations, calls for the establishment of a Palestinian state by the end of 2005.

On settlements, 59 per cent of Israelis supported a building freeze, as required by the road- map, and 56 per cent the removal of all outposts established since Mr Sharon took office in March 2001.

"Now, when the principle of ending the occupation has finally been established," Chemi Shalev, Ma'ariv's political commentator, wrote, "all that is left is to bargain over the price ... Two and a half years of exhausting intifada, along with Sharon's willingness to cross lines and break with convention, have created the anomaly that is Israeli public opinion of 2003, whose heart is with the right, but whose head more and more is deep within the left."

Although suicide bombers remain national heroes on the streets and wall posters of the West Bank and Gaza, most Palestinians support Mr Abbas's call for the militant groups to refrain from attacking Israeli civilians to give negotiations a chance. Researchers from Birzeit University, near Ramallah, registered 19.9 per cent backing a ceasefire unconditionally, with 51.5 per cent joining them if Israel refrained from using violence against Palestinians. Almost two thirds supported the continuation of negotiations with Israel.

Ghassan Khatib, a political scientist now Mr Abbas's Minister of Labour, said: "My impression is that people are really tired and want to give this Palestinian government a chance. That includes the Islamists." But Israelis and Palestinians remain sceptical on whether their leaders can, or will, produce results. The euphoria of the 1993 Oslo breakthrough evaporated amid the debris of Jenin and Rafah, Jerusalem and Netanya.

Most Israelis suspect Mr Sharon was more interested in placating the Americans than ending the occupation. Only 22 per cent of the Ma'ariv sample trusted Mr Abbas to keep his commitments. More than 70 per cent of Palestinians doubted whether Israel would implement the road-map, and 55.6 per cent did not believe the United States was serious about seeing it through.

Mr Sharon's spokesmen said they wanted to show the Palestinians "a new era" beckoned if Mr Abbas and his security chief, Mohammed Dahlan, reined in the bombers.

The question is whether Mr Sharon delivers, and whether the radical Hamas and Islamic Jihad let him. If not, no more than public relations gestures will be made. The initial release of 100 security detainees, including the longest-serving prisoner, Abu Suker, convicted of planting a booby-trapped fridge in a Jerusalem square in 1974, is a start, but still leaves 6,000 in Israeli jails. Granting 25,000 permits for Palestinian day-labourers to work in Israel assumes their old jobs are still available in farms, factories and building sites suffering the worst recession in 50 years. Many of the jobs have been taken by workers from China and Thailand, Romania, Poland and Ukraine.

With hatred high and mutual trust at an all-time low, analysts say only sustained American pressure can push Mr Sharon and Mr Abbas (and Yasser Arafat, watching constantly over his shoulder) to an agreement. President Bush has told an Egyptian television interviewer: "When I say I'm going to be involved in the peace process, I mean I'm going to be involved in the peace process." The road-map gives him two years to prove it.