Israel Turns Attention Back to Palestinian Question

Now that there's a halt in fighting between Hezbollah and Israel, there is talk that it may be the time to revive negotiations for a peace plan between Israel and the Palestinians. The Bush administration says the so-called "road map" is still a viable plan. Others say that the road map was dead on arrival.

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But that war in southern Lebanon shifted focus for a time from the Gaza Strip. Fighting there over the past two months has left more than 200 Palestinians and three Israeli soldiers dead. Now that there's a halt in the fighting in Lebanon, there is talk that it may be time to revive negotiations for a peace plan between Israel and the Palestinians.

NPR's Jackie Northam reports.

JACKIE NORTHAM reporting:

For more than three years, the latest plan to bring peace and a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has rested with one document, the so-called Mideast roadmap. But like the many peace plans that preceded it over the decades, this plan stalled before it ever got off the ground. The roadmap was hammered out among the United States, the United Nations, Russia and the European Union - known as the Quartet.

Flynt Leverett is a senior fellow at the New American Foundation, and served as a senior director of Middle East Affairs at both the National Security Council and at the State Department during President George W. Bush's first term in office. Leverett says the roadmap didn't fully address key issues such as borders, the status of Jerusalem, or Palestinian refugees. Leverett says the president grasped how serious these issues were, but...

Mr. FLYNT LEVERETT (Senior Fellow, New American Foundation): I think the president basically believed he could sidestep having to deal with these difficult issues by emphasizing Palestinian democracy. I think that was a naïve, an ahistorical view of this conflict and of the nature of the Palestinians politics. And I think that it has proven to be a very flawed and incorrect way of approaching this issue.

NORTHAM: Still, the roadmap has its backers. Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas said it was an essential element for the Palestinian future. Last week, Dan Gillerman - Israel's Ambassador to the U.N. - said the 2003 peace plan was the only viable option. And Tony Snow, White House spokesman, echoed those sentiments earlier this month.

Mr. TONY SNOW (White House Spokesman): And we remade a committed to the roadmap and have been committed to the roadmap. And we've working with our partners in that. I mean, the Quartet is - remains active in trying to make sure that we have the conditions for peace in the region.

NORTHAM: But that doesn't include talking with Hamas, which swept to power in democratic elections in January. Hamas is on a U.S. list of terrorist organizations, and has rejected calls by the Quartet to renounce violence and recognize Israel. As a result, the U.S. and Israel have issued an economic and political boycott of Hamas - in essence, of the Palestinian government. Israel has arrested more than 30 Hamas members of parliament, and peace negotiations have ground to a halt.

Gilead Sher - the head of the Israeli negotiating team at the Camp David summit in 2000 - says even in times of crisis like now, talks on both sides must continue. But Sher says that's not something that the U.S. or Israel is interested in right now.

Mr. GILEAD SHER (Chief Israeli Negotiator, 2000 Camp David Summit): I think that this is a flaw in both the American and the Israeli policymaking lately. Diplomacy - assertive diplomacy and determined diplomacy in order to attain political objectives is a bit less of taken into account than other policies of a forceful nature, and unfortunately so.

NORTHAM: Many analysts say the recent conflict in southern Lebanon - with its inconclusive outcome - shows that it will take more than just military strikes to help resolve the issues between Israel and its opponents, and that negotiations are still a key component. There have been some talks between Hamas and its chief rival Fatah to form a unity government which could ease the way to new negotiations. Still, Stephen Cohen - the president of the Institute for Middle East Peace and Development - says he doesn't see any movement in the U.S. camp to restart peace talks.

Mr. STEPHEN COHEN (President, Institute for Middle East Peace and Development): It looks like the only one who could move the president to begin to take this seriously would be the Israeli prime minister himself. And the Israeli prime minister himself is under a lot of internal pressures right now in Israel. And therefore, it's a question mark whether he would be willing to turn directly to the president to get help on this question.

NORTHAM: Cohen says if the U.S. did decide to weigh in on a new round of peace talks, it would have to be fully committed to implementing a new plan this time.

Mr. COHEN: If you start again without the intention of really pushing hard, your chance is that you'll fail and that your credibility will sink even further into the mud.

NORTHAM: And that, Cohen says, could have an impact on any influence the U.S. hopes to wield or maintain in the Middle East.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.

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