- The Washington Times - Monday, April 3, 2006

TEL AVIV — With elections over in Israel and the Palestinian territories, attention is again turning to the prospect for peace talks, but the outlook for their success appears bleak as unilateralism gains traction as an alternative, said analysts and officials.

Ehud Olmert, seemingly assured of becoming the Israeli prime minister, said in a victory speech last week that he would like to negotiate a peace treaty with the Palestinians and would be ready to make concessions to that end. Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, meanwhile, said his Hamas movement gave its blessing to the pursuit of new talks by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

But with Israel demanding that the Palestinians first disarm their militants — as required by the U.S.-sponsored “road map” peace plan — and Hamas saying it will do nothing of the sort, it is not clear how those talks will get started.

Mr. Olmert’s Kadima party is expected to allow one year for peace talks before moving ahead on a promise to unilaterally establish a border in the West Bank through unilateral withdrawal and settlement evacuations, analysts say.

Whether new peace talks get a real chance could depend on whether Israel’s Labor Party, a strong advocate of negotiations, controls the Defense Ministry. Hamas’ ability to control militant attacks on Israel will also determine whether an atmosphere is created to sustain talks.

But most analysts doubt that either side has the will to reach a peace agreement right now. Mr. Abbas’ maneuverability has been cramped by Hamas’ victory in parliamentary elections in January, while Israel remains skeptical that the weakened Palestinian Authority president can enforce any deal that he makes.

“The problem with Abbas is not his positions and not his attitude toward the problems,” said Mark Regev, a spokesman for the Israeli foreign ministry. “With real power today transferred to Hamas, he might have moral authority, but the question is does he have the ability to deliver.”

The Palestinians, meanwhile, are furious over Mr. Olmert’s pledge to unilaterally withdraw from most of the West Bank within four years, viewing his plan to “consolidate” Israeli settlements as a de facto annexation.

“Olmert’s unilateralism is a recipe for conflict,” Mr. Haniyeh wrote in the British newspaper the Guardian. “It is a plan to impose a permanent situation in which the Palestinians end up with a homeland cut into pieces.”

The Islamic militants, for their part, have proposed an Israeli withdrawal to the original West Bank borders and third-party intervention to broker a long-term cease-fire. And yet, Israel’s policy of unilateral steps may take the pressure off Hamas, whose first priority is to consolidate its rule in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

“There will be a lot of learning for them. There are huge challenges, when it comes to rule of law, poverty and welfare,” said Said Zeedani, a Ramallah-based political analyst. “With Kadima taking unilateral actions and Hamas preoccupied with the internal Palestinian situation, Abbas can serve as a bridge.”

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