Analysis: Gaza crisis changes Israeli-Palestinian dynamics

Ofira Koopmans, dpa

Jerusalem_(dpa) _ For all the misery and uncertainty that resulted from last week's bloody Palestinian internecine fighting, the political severing of the West Bank from the Gaza Strip has created some new opportunities from the point of view of President Mahmoud Abbas and Israel.

After a more than one-year boycott, the European Union announced Monday that it was resuming its direct aid to the Abbas' appointed emergency government in the West Bank.

And Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert pledged to transfer hundreds of millions of US dollars in frozen tax revenues to the Palestinian Authority (PA), which Israel collects on its behalf over goods imported to the Palestinian autonomous areas via its ports and airport.

Some analysts even raised the prospect of a possible renewal of peace talks between Israel and Abbas, which Israel previously had refused to discuss so long as the moderate Palestinian leader had to cooperate with a Hamas-led unity government that did not recognize its right to exist and renounce violence.

Olmert, currently on a visit to the US where he is scheduled to meet President George W Bush Tuesday, told Jewish lobbyists in New York late Sunday that he was willing to "talk seriously" with Abbas about the outlines of a permanent peace deal.

"We are going to examine the situation and explore every possibility of seeing whether we can push the diplomatic process forward," an Israeli government official elaborated Monday.

"A new situation poses a number of new possibilities for Israel, with the intention being to strengthen the moderates in the PA, he told Deustche Presse-Agentur dpa on condition of anonymity.

Israel will work with Abbas and the emergency government he established in the West Bank, he said, while continuing to boycott Hamas.

The Gaza internal fighting has created an unexpected twist that ostensibly removed Israel's reasons for refusing a revival of peace talks.

Although it is too early to say how realistic such a revival of peace talks is after almost seven years of stalemate, it is arguably in the interest of both the Israeli and Palestinian leader. Abbas has since his victory in January 2005 presidential elections been desperate for a "political horizon" to offer his electorate.

As president of both the PA and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), he is authorized to lead peace negotiations. Since Israel already withdrew unilaterally from the Gaza Strip two years ago, it could negotiate with Abbas on the borders of the West Bank and a capital in East Jerusalem, which would seriously boost his standing.

Olmert too has an interest in some kind of movement on the peace process. He suffers a leadership crisis over his handling of last summer's Lebanon war and lacks a political agenda after he scrapped his plan for a unilateral withdrawal from part of the West Bank as a result of that war.

Aides to Abbas are also urging Israel to take other steps too boost Abbas and improve living conditions in the West Bank by removing roadblocks and easing arrest raids.

This is a complicated issue for Israel with the situation on the ground far from being black and white. When it announced its decision to take part on parliamentary elections more than two years ago, Hamas made a tactic decision to suspend suicide bombings. In fact, it has been Fatah's armed wing, the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, which has continued planning such attacks in cooperation with the Islamic Jihad.

Israel's raids in the West Bank have therefore focussed on these two groups and thus far it has said it cannot afford to end the arrests, arguing they have foiled scores of suicide bombings.

"Israel's operations completely destroyed these (Fatah's) forces in the West Bank," one Abbas' aide told the Israeli Ha'aretz daily.

Promising to find the right balance between improving Palestinian movement and life in the West Bank and Israeli security, Olmert told the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations in Manhatten Sunday that "in the new circumstance we can perhaps take more risks than in the past."

Abbas' aides also want a "significant" prisoners release, which they hope would includes Marwan Barghouti, one of Fatah's most popular leaders who is serving five consecutive life sentences for indirect involvement as the movement's West Bank leader in the killing of four Israeli civilians and a Greek Orthodox monk in shooting attacks by Fatah militants.

While Abbas can look forward from the West Bank to improved relations with Israel and the West, Hamas, despite its impressive military victory over Fatah, finds itself isolated in the Gaza Strip with no funding and a looming humanitarian crisis.

It is a "safe bet" that Abbas' current attitude is: "Let Hamas try to rule Gaza, and good luck," wrote former US ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk, who now directs a Mideast think-tank, in the Washington Post.

Israel, as well as the West, however are walking a tight-rope between boosting Abbas and fuelling Hamas claims that the president is an agent of the "Zionists" and "imperialists." dpa ok fs


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