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Middle East: New Hopes For Palestinian-Israeli Peace, But Pitfalls Remain

President Mahmud Abbas World leaders are congratulating Mahmud Abbas amid hopes that his election as Palestinian president can lend fresh impetus to the peace process. At the same time, a broad-based Israeli government has been sworn in, with the express intent of withdrawing Israeli forces from occupied Gaza. But despite the promising circumstances, the old stumbling blocks remain -- including extremists on both sides who seem bent on perpetuating the conflict.

Prague, 11 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- There are new hopes for resuming progress toward peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Following the 9 January election, the Palestinians have a new leader. Moderate Mahmud Abbas, popularly known as Abu Mazen, said he wanted to reengage Israel in peace talks.

And the Israelis, for their part, have a new government. Sworn in yesterday, it unites the right and left of the political spectrum with the aim of withdrawing Israel from the Gaza Strip.
"We do appreciate the role of the United States, in putting us back on the right track for peace."

Palestinian cabinet minister Saeb Erekat spoke to reporters in the West Bank yesterday. "I believe Abu Mazen now is handling the most difficult job on Earth," he said. "The tasks are enormous. I believe the Palestinians are looking at the first 100 days of his presidency to see if he can restore the rule of law and public order, end chaos, continue reform, fight corruption."

Chief among Abbas's concerns is how to rein in Hamas and other militant groups who say they will cease their attacks only if the government achieves quick results on an Israeli withdrawal. Senior Hamas official Mahmud al-Zahar said yesterday that Hamas gives nothing "for free" and is not interested in "failed attempts."

For Israelis, the stakes are also high. Their new unity government seeks to pull out of Gaza in the teeth of intense opposition from hard-line Jewish settlers. Lili Galili is a senior correspondent for the Israeli daily "Ha'aretz." She said: "The radicals on both sides can still ruin everything at this point, because most Israelis, as you know, are in favor of the withdrawal plan from Gaza, but there is [nevertheless] a lot of opposition to it within Israel, especially among the settlers themselves. But it is not limited to the settlers only; they have a lot of support within the green line, within the state of Israel, and they are threatening us with a civil war."

The settlers have warned that conservative elements in the military would revolt rather than forcibly remove them from Gaza. In response, the government recently dismissed six reserve officers who threatened to disobey orders to remove settlements.

Galili notes that trouble has already flared -- even before the start of the Gaza pullout: "There was an evacuation of one small outpost, an illegal outpost, which was basically two mobile houses on a hill -- absolutely insignificant as such, but the opposition was really fierce."

Nonetheless, the new Israeli government has made progress on peace its primary goal. Shimon Peres, the Labor Party leader who is now deputy prime minister, spoke on today in Jerusalem: "It is a government with many difficulties, but [better to] have difficulties and peace, than not having difficulties and not having peace."

In a sign of the new climate following the Palestinian poll, Washington now appears intent on making an investment in the peace process following an extended period when Iraq took center stage in U.S. foreign policy.

George W. Bush had shunned Yasser Arafat as tainted by ties to terrorism. But yesterday the U.S. president invited Arafat's successor to visit the White House: "I want to offer my congratulations to Mr. Abu Mazen. I look forward to talking with him at the appropriate time. I look forward to welcoming him here to Washington if he chooses to come here."

Analysts have long questioned the Bush administration's willingness to pressure Israel to live up to its side of any bargain with the Palestinians.

But in his remarks in Washington, Bush made it clear that Israel must support the development of a Palestinian state: "I think it's going to be very important for Israel to fulfill its obligation on the withdrawal from the territories that they have pledged to withdraw from. It is essential that Israel keep a vision of two states living side by side in peace and that as the Palestinians begin to develop the institutions of a state, that the Israeli government support the development of those institutions."

Palestinians have welcomed the fresh U.S. involvement. Imad Alzuhiri is deputy head of the European Affairs desk of the Palestinian Foreign Ministry. He spoke to RFE/RL from the West Bank city of Ramallah: "We do appreciate the role of the United States, in putting us back on the right track for peace. We appreciate that role, and we consider the United States a major player in the peace process in the Middle East."

Abbas, meanwhile, may have expressed the prevailing mood yesterday. The Palestinian leader said his election is just the start -- the start of what looks set to be a difficult journey.