A coalition government in Israel could yet bring hope for peace

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The Independent Online

We have learnt from this week in Northern Ireland just how difficult the course of peace can be. But we have also seen how the process can be moved forward, building on practical measures and political self-interest even without full trust among the parties. Yesterday's moves to form a government of national unity in Israel, that brings in the Labour Party, coming on top of parallel plans for elections for a new Palestinian leader, could hold out the same sober hope. If they are followed, as the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, has promised, by an early Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and the start of American-backed talks with the Palestinians, then one can see a chance for a new start in the Middle East.

We have learnt from this week in Northern Ireland just how difficult the course of peace can be. But we have also seen how the process can be moved forward, building on practical measures and political self-interest even without full trust among the parties. Yesterday's moves to form a government of national unity in Israel, that brings in the Labour Party, coming on top of parallel plans for elections for a new Palestinian leader, could hold out the same sober hope. If they are followed, as the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, has promised, by an early Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and the start of American-backed talks with the Palestinians, then one can see a chance for a new start in the Middle East.

These are still big ifs. Sharon and the Labour leader, Shimon Peres, have still to reach terms and this may be no easy matter considering the distrust between the two parties, although not the two men, who are friends. It was barely more than four months ago, after all, when a vote of the ruling Likud Party turned down just such an alliance.

But the loss of the Shinui Party from government over the budget and the threat of an early election have brought the party face to face with some of the harsh realities of power. While the Likud members bicker, all the opinion polls suggest that the Israeli population is keen to pursue peace with the Palestinians and is impatient with the internecine political squabbles that might stop it. Add to that the sense of new possibility that has come with the death of Yasser Arafat both within Palestine and in Washington and you have the makings of a momentum towards peace.

That does not bring about peace of its own accord. For even preliminary negotiations to take place, you need two willing partners. The Palestinians will not be able to provide that until elections for a successor to Arafat as president of the Palestinian Authority are conducted next month, and these are by no means the shoo-in for the officially backed candidacy of Abu Mazen that outsiders seem to assume. Too much open support from Israel, or the West, in favour of Abu Mazen could easily rebound to his detriment, as could over-exacting demands on the new Palestinian Authority to prove its worth by immediately clamping down on extremists.

Equally, the inclusion of the Labour Party in government does not of itself turn a Likud-led administration from a hawk into a dove. Sharon is also negotiating to bring two ultra-Orthodox groups to counterbalance Labour and to reassure his hard-line supporters that he is still a man who believes in security first, peace second. Alliance with Labour should certainly help Sharon to implement his plan for unilateral withdrawal from Gaza. But whether that is a first step towards a wider withdrawal and peace talks or a retrenchment behind a new security wall that includes all the main settlements of the West Bank has still to be seen.

We're a long way from even the beginning of the end. But as a particularly grim year for the Middle East staggers to its close, there is at least some reason for cheer.

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