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The Palestine Track.

PA President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli PM Olmert have spoken of the need to define the final outcome of renewed talks. Abbas calls it an "end game". Olmert considers it "an agreement of principles". In Ramallah Ms Rice on Aug. 2 told Abbas Israel was willing to discuss fundamental issues but gave no details and, given Israel's reluctance, talks in the autumn were unlikely to include detailed discussion on core matters such as borders, the return of refugees or the status of Jerusalem. Abbas said he was ready to reach a "declaration of principles" with Israel, which could involve the rough contours of a Palestinian state. Ms Rice said: "The president of the United States has no desire to call people together for a photo opportunity. This is to call people together so that we can really advance Palestinian statehood". Ms Rice signed an agreement granting Abbas's government $80m for reform of its security services.

Bush wants to see a Palestine state ready before he leaves the White House. However, the FT on July 30 quoted West Bank political analyst Hani al-Masri as saying: "They want to change the name of the Palestinian Authority to the Palestinian state. But it wouldn't change anything on the ground. It would be a state under occupation". Many Palestinians are wary of a short-term solution they perceive as having more to do with Bush's legacy and the US's problems elsewhere in the Middle East than with a lasting settlement of the conflict.

Diplomacy accelerated after Hamas's June 14 takeover of the Gaza Strip and Abbas's consolidation of Fatah's power in the West Bank. Abbas's dismissal of Hamas from government has converted him into a "partner for peace" of Israel. Bush on July 16 said: "By supporting the reforms of President Abbas and Prime Minister [Salam] Fayyad, we can help them show the world what a Palestinian state would look like - and act like". Since then former UK PM Tony Blair has been made envoy of the international Quartet - the US, EU, UN and Russia - to oversee reforms and the foreign ministers of Egypt and Jordan on July 25 were in Jerusalem to push an Arab peace plan.

To sweeten the pill for the Palestinians, Ms Rice says Israel must end its occupation of the West Bank and secure its future in Galilee and the Negev. The latter is a policy embraced by the Olmert government and long sponsored by new Israeli President Shimon Peres. Haim Ramon, a close ally of Olmert, says Israel should leave most of the West Bank as "the occupation of the territories threatens our very existence, our legitimacy and our international standing". Ramon is thus flying a kite for the PM, a function Olmert performed for his predecessor Ariel Sharon when the latter was planning the controversial 2005 Israeli exit from the Gaza Strip. The Olmert government seems tempted to secure a deal with Abbas while he is relatively weak.

Abbas previously rejected any interim statehood that would leave borders undefined. A putative interim state would remain hemmed in by Israeli military controls and the army might even insist on retaining a right of hot pursuit. The concept of interim statehood - analysts have taken to calling it Oslo-2 in reference to the autonomy agreements which created the PA but failed to lead to Palestinian independence - faces considerable barriers.

Success assumes that Hamas, isolated in the Gaza Strip, will continue with its policy of non-aggression towards Fatah in the West Bank. It assumes the Israeli public will buy the idea so soon after a Gaza withdrawal whose aftermath they blame on Palestinian intransigence. Israel and the PA may be tempted to seize the moment because the focus of attention in the Middle East has shifted to Iraq and Iran.

As James Wolfensohn, Blair's frustrated predecessor, said in a recent interview: "Israelis and Palestinians really should get over thinking that they're a show on Broadway. They are a show in the Village, off-off-off-off Broadway".

Fayyad Vows Islamic Tolerance: In a swipe at Hamas, a government platform drawn up by PM Fayyad pledges to prevent use of violence in the name of Islam. An official English-language translation of the document says Fayyad's administration would build a clear-cut strategy to "enhance the status of Islam as a religion of tolerance". At the same time, the platform says, the government would prevent "the use of Islam to justify killings, exclusion of others and destruction".

The phrasing was clearly aimed at the Hamas Islamists who are fighting with Abbas's secular Fatah party. Hamas has accused Abbas, based at his Ramallah HQ in the West Bank where Fatah holds sway, of carrying out a coup by setting up the new government without the Islamist group, which won the January 2006 elections.

The platform omits the phrase "armed struggle" and "resistance" against Israeli occupation, while Hamas has rebuffed international demands to recognise Israel and renounce violence. A spokeswoman for Olmert has welcomed the new language. (Fayyad, a US-educated economist who enjoys world respect for fighting corruption and his reforms, presented the platform to Abbas on July 26).

The previous terminology had appeared in the platforms of the previous two Hamas-led governments. Since dismissing the Hamas government after its violent takeover of Gaza on June 14, Abbas has called for peaceful resistance to occupation and has condemned the firing of rockets into Israel.

In the new platform, Fayyad reiterates that his government would "fully abide by bilateral and multilateral agreements signed by the PLO as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, and the Palestinian National Authority, including those signed with Israel".
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Publication:APS Diplomat News Service
Date:Aug 6, 2007
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