Donald Macintyre: A moment of opportunity in the Middle East

Israelis are tiring of occupation; Hamas needs a moderate president
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The Independent Online

Considering that he did not even make it to the Knesset, the right-wing Likud politician Uzi Landau managed to play an important role in the Israeli election which ended in his party's crushing defeat yesterday. For shortly before polling day, he asked one of the simplest but sharpest questions of the campaign.

Mr Landau was discussing the key element of acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's election pitch: the intention, in the likely event of the new Hamas-led Palestinian Authority not meeting Israel's criteria for negotiations, to fix unilaterally the new "permanent" borders of Israel by 2010 significantly beyond their limit in 1967. "A future border between two parties means mutual agreement," Mr Landau pointed out. "If the other party doesn't agree, what makes that a permanent border?"

It is tempting to think that it was in belated recognition of that contradiction that Mr Olmert chose in his victory speech in the early hours of yesterday to hint at the possibility of negotiations and appeal directly to the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, for his people "to relate to the existence of Israel".

Equally this appeal (which, since Mr Abbas has no trouble relating to Israel's existence, must have been intended for the Hamas government standing behind him) may have been no more than another rehearsal of what Mr Olmert has said many times before - that unless Hamas meets the conditions set for it, Israel will act unilaterally. But as Palestinian officials and foreign diplomats scrambled to work out what, if anything, was new in Mr Olmert's speech, it was becoming clearer what his victory was and wasn't. For the Knesset's new 62-strong centre- left majority (out of 120 seats) - ranging from Kadima to Meretz and the Israeli Arab parties on the left - has been mandated not so much to endorse the strategy of Mr Olmert as to support withdrawals of West Bank settlements in general, whether unilaterally or by negotiation.

This is not merely an academic point. For Olmert cannot as things stand be guaranteed a simple Knesset majority in favour of unilateral withdrawals. The Arab Knesset members, for example, might deprive him of it by abstaining, as some did over the disengagement from Gaza.

Which is why he needs to bring into his coalition, beside Labour and - just possibly - Meretz, at least one party outside that majority consensus (The ultra-orthodox Shas and the new Pensioners' Party are obvious examples) and secure, in return for whatever promises he can make on their pet concerns, a guarantee that they will support another unilateral disengagement.

Another pressure for a more bilateral approach, however, is that the Labour leader, Amir Peretz, has a clear preference for a resumed negotiating process, not with Hamas, but with Mr Abbas as the PA's directly elected President. Mr Peretz may in the end subordinate this demand to his desire to control some of the social and economic levers of the new government; and he would certainly not in the end oppose a unilateral withdrawal in the West Bank if it came to it.

Shas is more problematic, its supporters having moved sharply to the right since the party backed Yitzhak Rabin over Oslo. On the other hand, the rabbinical ruling that it followed when it opposed Gaza disengagement specified the unilateral nature of the move; might it just be more emollient if disengagement was part of a negotiating process with the Palestinians?

As so often, the key conundrum is for the United States. It will appreciate (rightly) that Mr Olmert's plan is far more expensive and larger in scale - and potentially more difficult and dangerous - than withdrawal from Gaza last August. On the other hand, it cannot wholly escape the Landau question. If it agrees to endorse a "permanent" border that is fixed without negotiation with the Palestinians, it will be adding greatly to its already massive and self-inflicted problems in this region.

Which is why there just might be some logic in Washington urging the new Israeli Prime Minister to heed Mr Abbas's repeated proposals to see in him the partner Ariel Sharon had decided he, Abbas, wasn't - or at least test in earnest whether he could be. This would cut across much of the thinking in an administration that is infuriated that he lost the election to Hamas.

It would mean swallowing a great deal of rhetoric to treat him as what in effect would be a kind of intermediary with Hamas. But this may be one of those rapidly passing moments of opportunity in the Middle East. An Israeli majority is tiring of the occupation; a moderate Palestinian president, weakened as he has been, is needed by Hamas to give it the respectability it craves. This may not yet be the time to throw away the Abbas card.