Long-term stability in Gaza will need Israel's help

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The Independent Online

On the face of it, the Israeli Cabinet's decision to release 400 Palestinian prisoners is another sign of slow but steady progress after four months in which violent conflict has been dramatically reduced. It comes, moreover, after a relatively upbeat public assessment by the Palestinian leadership of President Mahmoud Abbas's visit to the White House last week.

On the face of it, the Israeli Cabinet's decision to release 400 Palestinian prisoners is another sign of slow but steady progress after four months in which violent conflict has been dramatically reduced. It comes, moreover, after a relatively upbeat public assessment by the Palestinian leadership of President Mahmoud Abbas's visit to the White House last week.

Paradoxically, however, it also comes at a time when a number of officials and analysts on both sides are becoming increasingly pessimistic about the prospects for the present calm enduring. There are particular doubts whether momentum will be maintained after Israel completes the admittedly daunting and unprecedented task of removing more than 8,000 Jewish settlers from Gaza this summer, and whether, if progress stalls, a return to armed conflict is inevitable sooner or later.

The problem, put crudely, is this. Israel insists that no substantive negotiations under the Road Map are possible without the Palestinian Authority first taking active steps to dismantle the "terrorist infrastructure" - notably of Hamas. While acknowledging Mr Abbas's good intentions, Israel is deeply distrustful of his strategy of securing calm by negotiation with the armed factions rather than by confrontation. Even moderate Palestinians, for their part, argue that Mr Abbas's chances of disarming Hamas will be enhanced if the political position of Fatah, to which Mr Abbas and the hitherto dominant cadres of the Palestinian Authority belong, is strengthened. They worry that, in its current weakened state, it might be unable to counter the potent threat posed by Hamas in the coming parliamentary elections. And the only way to bolster Fatah, they believe, is for ordinary Palestinians to see tangible gains from the present period of calm and a clear political horizon that makes the genuine curbing of the armed factions a worthwhile project.

Neither yesterday's announcement, nor Mr Abbas's trip to Washington, do much to clarify such a horizon. By no means all Mr Abbas's problems are of Israel's making. Many of Hamas's electoral gains in two recent rounds of local elections, for example, were because of a widespread perception of corruption in the Palestinian Authority that Mr Abbas was either reluctant or unable to tackle.

Israel does nonetheless have considerable power to increase the personal legitimacy Mr Abbas urgently needs. Ariel Sharon's government - itself under pressure from the far right - has not been as consistently unhelpful as it was during Mr Abbas's brief and unhappy premiership in 2003. But it has been slow to release West Bank cities to Palestinian control, slow to dismantle checkpoints and slow to release prisoners. Yesterday's announcement still does nothing to meet Mr Abbas's consistent appeal for the release of prisoners convicted for militant operations before the Oslo accords. Above all, Israel continues to plan and execute expansion of the West Bank settlements in defiance of President Bush's repeated calls on Israel to do nothing to prejudice final negotiations on a Palestinian state.

The Bush strategy appears to be to regard a stable post-disengagement Gaza as a test the Palestinians must pass before they can expect serious negotiations on the rest of a potential state. The underlying difficulty, however, remains. The Palestinian leadership will find it hard to pass the Gaza test unless, at some point, Mr Bush is prepared to exert real pressure on Israel to halt its expansion of the settlements. Until such time as the gap between the US President's words and Mr Sharon's actions starts to close, Mr Abbas will face an uphill struggle to foster stability in Gaza.

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