I had some hopes that the election of Mahmoud Abbas as President of the Palestinian National Authority would lead to a breaking of the deadlock between Israel and Palestine. These hopes were bolstered by the entry into the Israeli government of Shimon Peres and Labour. However, early signs are not favourable. Ariel Sharon is severing ties with Abbas in the aftermath of the latest attack, in which six Israelis died in Gaza.
What needs to be understood about the situation is that both leaders are hostage to their own constituencies. Hamas effectively presented a united front with Fatah for the Palestinian elections, in order to strengthen the negotiating hand of the Palestinians. Sharon has had immense difficulty in persuading both the Knesset and many Israeli citizens to go along with his limited concession of withdrawal of some settlements from the West Bank. Sharon has now reverted to the line used against Arafat – no negotiations until violence ceases. Arafat’s death has therefore not produced the circuit-breaker many hoped for.
Despite Tony Blair’s good intentions, it’s likely that only an intervention by the United States could produce any movement in these frozen postures. It’s in this context that Sharon’s harnessing of the Intifada to the rhetoric of the ‘War on Terror’ has been unhelpful for any hopes of a settlement. Bush also has his own domestic constituency – particularly in this case, Christian Zionists – but is to some degree constrained also by his past actions and statements. Aside from the legitimate aspirations of both the Palestinian and Israeli peoples for peace and security, the other tragedy of this situation is that continuing instability and conflict in Palestine will only fuel the same fires which sparked Al-Qaeda.