Donald Macintyre: A milestone secured by luck, and a dash of opportunism

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The Independent Online

Peace could hardly be a more distant prospect than now, as Israel's formidable armour continues to mass on the borders of Gaza, inside which an abducted, 19-year-old Israeli soldier is being held by armed Palestinian militants.

And yet, it may just be that yesterday will eventually be judged by history as a milestone in the long and bloody journey to a solution of the world's most intractable territorial conflict. For the first time, the overwhelming majority of factions representing Palestinians - most notably including Hamas which is committed by charter to eliminating Israel - have agreed to a written document committing them to a negotiated two-state solution and, if not explicitly then at least by unmistakable implication, to recognition of Israel.

That Mahmoud Abbas, who has long laboured for such a solution and to whom the final, initialled, version of the document was presented last night, was able to secure such an agreement is the product of luck, a stroke of opportunism on his own part, and circumstances. The luck lay in the fact that his own one-time Fatah rival for the Palestinian presidency, Marwan Barghouti, managed, in the Israeli prison where he is an inmate, to secure the agreement earlier this year of fellow Hamas prisoners to a document which authorised Mr Abbas, as leader of the PLO, to negotiate a "final" solution based on the borders which existed before Israel's 1967 occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Because of Mr Barghouti's standing throughout Palestinian society, but even more because prisoners enjoy an especial honour among all Palestinians, the document could not fail to resonate.

The stroke of opportunism was Mr Abbas's uncharacteristically dramatic decision to threaten to put the document to a referendum of the Palestinian people next month unless Hamas signed up to it.

And the circumstance was the huge pressure imposed by the international economic blockade on the elected Hamas leadership of the Palestinian Authority, and the public suffering it has generated. Mr Abbas seems to have succeeded in persuading Hamas that an agreement - while it stopped short of explicitly recognising Israel and well short of renouncing violence against it (two of the conditions imposed by Israel and the international community) - would go some way to reducing that pressure. The task of translating yesterday's deal into real progress remains fraught with obstacles. First, the new text will be pored over to see whether it is really true.

Second, it will hardly be welcomed by Israel, whose Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, is anyway committed to ways in which Israel would stop well short of returning to its 1967 borders. Even in its pristine form, the document was roundly condemned by Mr Olmert for failing explicitly to recognise Israel, renounce violence or abandon altogether the right of refugees to return to the Holy Land.

Third, many Hamas elements will do their best to counter the argument that anything has really changed.

Fourth, the international community is unlikely to be impressed, at least until the new coalition government the document is supposed to usher in is first formed, and then produces a programme which starts to conform to the conditions it has laid down.

In the present dark circumstances, yesterday's deal therefore seems a fragile step. But it may be that it is more important than the decisive step taken towards recognition of Israel in 1988 by the PLO - this time almost all the factions are involved.

But it may also take a long time - perhaps a very long time - before that helps to deliver the lasting peace a majority of Israelis and Palestinians want.