US and Egypt try again for Mid-East peace process back on US agenda

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The Independent Online
As the Middle East emerges from the twin torpor of the Jewish Passover and the Muslim Feast of the Sacrifice, the United States and Egypt are trying again to revive the dormant Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Madeleine Albright, the US Secretary of State, has invited the Israeli Foreign Minister, David Levy, to Washington on Friday. President Hosni Mubarak is canvassing a summit of Egyptian, Syrian, Jordanian and Palestinian leaders in Cairo to co-ordinate their strategy.

Despite its propaganda success in the United Nations General Assembly, where 134 countries last weekend denounced Israeli construction on Har Homa in Arab East Jerusalem, the Palestinian Authority is in despair. Although the United States was one of only three countries voting against the UN resolution, Palestinian officials still recognise the Clinton administration as their best bet to bring Benjamin Netanyahu back to the table.

The American Middle East peace envoy, Dennis Ross, is expected to return to the region in early May. "I hope," Sa'eb Erakat, a senior Palestinian negotiator, said, "we won't hear again simply that he will listen to us, then report to the President".

The Palestinian criteria for resuming negotiations remain uncompromising. "Israel," Dr Erakat insisted, "must cease all unilateral acts, especially Har Homa and other settlement activity. If they want to protect the peace process ... the Americans have to tell Mr Netanyahu that work must stop. We're saying all disputes must be settled through negotiations."

The Israeli Prime Minister has suggested going straight into negotiations for a permanent solution, with a target date for reaching agreement in six months. He hopes by this means to avoid confrontations - with the Palestinians and with his own nationalist constituency - at every step of the interim agreement.

The Palestinians are ready to get down to business on a final deal, but parallel to, rather than instead of, the interim negotiations. They suspect that Mr Netanyahu would use single-track negotiations to stall everything. They want him to continue with the three "further redeployments" he promised at the time of the Hebron pullback in January.

"Intensive negotiations for the permanent status don't contradict going on with commitments already made under the interim agreement," Dr Erakat argued. The Palestinian commitments include co-operating to fight terror.

Dr Erakat charged Mr Netanyahu with deliberately humiliating Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority. "We don't feel we have a partner any more," he complained.

Where would the Palestinians go, in that case? "Back to the confrontation, disaster and violence we tried to get out of. For the first time in 100 years we have an elected group of Palestinians who constitute interlocutors. Why are they trying to destroy us? Mr Netanyahu has strengthened our Palestinian extremists."

This growing disenchantment is borne out by the latest Palestinian opinion poll. The Centre for Palestine Research and Studies logged support for the peace process down from 73 per cent in March to 60 per cent in April - its lowest point since 1994, when a Jewish settler massacred 29 Muslims in a Hebron mosque.

At the same time, the survey found that support for suicide attacks, such as the bombing which killed three women in a Tel Aviv cafe in March, had almost doubled from 21 per cent a year ago to 40 per cent.

"People are disillusioned, angry and frustrated with the peace process," explained the pollster Khalil Shikaki. "There is a realisation that the Netanyahu government may not deliver. People are beginning to feel that they must have something else to fall back on."

But the Palestinians have not yet abandoned all hope of peace. Dr Shikaki noted that a clear majority still backed the Oslo process and that those who supported violence remained a minority, albeit a large minority. "The decline in support for the peace process," he contended, "is still reversible."

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