By Dan Murphy
Israel released just over 250 Palestinian prisoners on Friday, leading to scenes of jubilation on the West Bank and pledges of support to Palestinian President and Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas, the Associated Press reports.
The release was meant to bolster Abbas in his power struggle with the Islamic militant Hamas, which took control of Gaza by force last month.
Several thousand chanting, clapping Palestinians greeted the prisoners as their buses rolled into Abbas' headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah....
"This is the beginning," said Abbas. "Efforts must continue. Our work must continue until every prisoner returns to his home."
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said the prisoner release is part of a package of goodwill gestures that is to give new momentum to stalled peace efforts.
But a number of reports express skepticism that the two key players in the conflict, as well as the United States, are ready or willing to push for the compromises that could bring peace a step closer. Agence France-Presse reports on an interview that Israel's Haaretz newspaper carried with James Wolfensohn, the former special envoy for the so-called Middle East Quartet of the EU, US, Russia and the World Bank, who said the US was a particular obstacle to his peace efforts.
"There was never a desire on the part of the Americans to give up control of the negotiations, and I would doubt that in the eyes of ... the State Department team, I was ever anything but a nuisance," Haaretz quoted him as saying.
Haaretz said Mr. Wolfensohn believed Israeli officials also regarded him as a nuisance, particularly after former prime minister Ariel Sharon disappeared from public life following a stroke in January 2006.
But he expressed hope that former British premier Tony Blair, his successor, would have a "greater mandate" than the one he enjoyed.
In another article in Haaretz, an unnamed senior military official is quoted as saying that Hamas's military strength is improving in its Gaza Strip stronghold, though the outlook for a major incursion into Gaza is limited because of a lack of Israeli public support for such a move now. The tone of the article is that even if Israel is less likely to face attacks from the West Bank, that conflict in Gaza is looming.
A senior military source offered reporters troubling details regarding Hamas' arming in the Gaza Strip. The [Philadelphia] Route, he said, is entirely out of control. The deterioration that began after Israel's disengagement from Gaza in 2005 has now become fully legitimized in the eyes of the Palestinians following Hamas' takeover a month ago. Smuggling, meanwhile, has transformed into an operation of importing arms and ammunition.
The senior military source said the improvement in Hamas' capabilities in the past two years was equivalent to a "generational leap," which in military jargon means a significant advance.
The army is certain that Israel and Hamas are on a collision course. They also say that the more time passes and Hamas grows in strength – including expertise acquired by its operatives in training camps in Iran – the more difficult it will be to deal with it.
The Jerusalem Post reports that Israel is ruling out the fast transfer of full security responsibility for West Bank cities to Mr. Abbas, something that close aides of the Palestinian President have said would be a significant gesture to bring peace closer.
Government sources said ... [the step] was premature. "They first have to have an effective security service in place," one official said.
The officials speculated that Palestinian leaks to the press about an imminent handover of the cities seemed designed to pressure Israel to do so.
While transferring security control of cities in the West Bank to the PA could ultimately take place, it is currently not even on the table, one official said.
The Washington Post reports that former British Prime Minister Tony Blair "made his debut as the new Middle East envoy," by calling Israeli-Arab peace efforts the most important peace and security issue in the world even as Iran pushed a dramatically different approach to the region than Israel, Fatah, and their Western allies.
The new U.S. plan centers around helping Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas stabilize the West Bank and engage in revived peace talks, while isolating the Hamas Islamic movement currently in control of Gaza.
But in a reflection of the obstacles ahead, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad huddled with the leaders of Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas in Damascus yesterday to chart their own future course for the Middle East.
After bilateral talks, Ahmadinejad and Syrian President Bashar Assad vowed to deepen their alliance and warned Western powers to stand back. "The enemies of the region should abandon plans to attack the interests of this region, or they will be burned by the wrath of the region's people," Mr. Ahmadinejad said at a joint news conference
The United States's top diplomat also said a Palestinian state cannot be achieved without Israel first ending its occupation of the West Bank. "We need from the Israelis a recognition of – and politics based on a recognition – that the future of Israel lies in places like the Negev and Galilee, not in the continued occupation of the West Bank," [Condoleezza] Rice said in an unusually blunt comment about the closest U.S. ally in the region.
Meanwhile, Reuters reports that President Bush is planning to meet Jordan's King Abdullah in Washington next week to "reinvigorate Palestinian-Israeli peacemaking."
Palace officials said the surprise visit by the staunch U.S. ally to the White House on Tuesday would focus on efforts to broaden support for Bush's call on Monday for a Middle East peace conference later in the year, probably in the United States.
The king is spearheading an Arab campaign to get Israel to accept a plan offering a sweeping land-for-peace initiative and has long sought an international meeting that brings together Israel, moderate Palestinian leaders and their Arab neighbors.
Jordan, which hosts the largest number of Palestinians outside the West Bank and Gaza, fears time is running out because of rising Iranian influence and the spread of Islamic fundamentalism that has brought more regional instability.
Writing in the Daily Star, Lebanon's leading English-language newspaper, Yossi Alpher, once an adviser to former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and now codirector of bitterlemons.org, an online newsletter about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, argues that neither Arab states nor Israel are doing enough to back Abbas and create the preconditions for peace.
The neighbors must help Abbas reform the Palestine Liberation Organization, Israel's designated Palestinian negotiating partner. Lest we forget, the Arab League created the PLO. Now that Palestinian body is hopelessly corrupt, manipulated by "dinosaurs" appointed decades ago by Yasser Arafat and out of touch with the Palestinian masses. Abbas, who is basing his leadership strategy on the PLO now that the Palestinian Authority is virtually defunct, seems sadly incapable of changing very much on his own.
Abbas is a weak but well-intentioned leader for whom there is no obvious successor or replacement (although Israel could contribute here by releasing Marwan Barghouti). With the active backing and involvement of Israel's Arab neighbors and a forthcoming Israeli approach – we can't expect much from the United States during the next 18 months – his legacy could conceivably be the initiation of a modest conflict-management process that ushers in another attempt at peace negotiations.
Otherwise - if we leave matters to Abbas alone, if Israel doesn't resume rolling back the settlements and outposts or if the Arabs once again fail the Palestinian cause - he will almost certainly usher in even greater chaos and more Islamist rule.