At the close of last year I was commissioned by an international NGO called Search for Common Ground to write about my expectations of the new year. United Press International ran my piece on its wire with the title "2006 Year of Hope." A number of other papers also ran the article.
My piece began: "Political changes in Palestine and Israel, as well as changes in attitudes in both societies and in the international community, provide a rare glimmer of hope that important changes on the ground are a serious possibility."
In the article I argued that radical ideologies were being sidelined in favor of those representing the political center. I gave the example of Ariel Sharon's breaking away from the hard-line Likud and the creation of Kadima, the rise of Marwan Barghouti's pragmatism and the weakening of the neo-conservatives in the US. I even reflected on some moderating hints coming from Hamas in their run-up to the elections.
My piece concluded: "With radical ideologies being discarded in [favor of] pragmatic policies, one hopes that 2006 will not only witness a considerable reduction in violence but will also see some genuine political breakthroughs that can put the region on the right track after years of turmoil and failed attempts at a historic reconciliation, peace and tranquility."
The Palestinian political collapse during the past three months since the parliamentary victory of Hamas, the internal fighting between Hamas and Fatah, and the recent violent escalation in the Gaza Strip make what I wrote six months ago seem completely unrealistic.
WHILE I'M WILLING to admit an inability to predict the future, I am not yet willing to completely throw in the towel. I still think that sometime in the next six to 12 months we will witness some major breakthroughs in the conflict.
My expectation of a breakthrough stems from various local and regional developments.
Internationally the push for some kind of resolution has never been greater. George Bush in his second term and Tony Blair in his last year, would all love nothing better than to sanitize their Iraqi record with some kind of accomplishment in the Palestine-Israel conflict.
Regionally the Arab League, surrounding Arab countries such as Egypt and Jordan (and to a lesser degree Lebanon) are also pushing to see a breakthrough that would divert attention from the continuing bad news coming out of Iraq.
Locally, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's so-called convergence plan seems to be gathering steam even though Bush and Blair have not given him their total support. The Olmert plan is putting major pressure on nationalists such as Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, who understands the importance of time.
Olmert has made it clear that Israel will not wait forever. On the other hand, Hamas is clearly not worried about time. More than one Islamic official has stated publicly that unlike Fatah, which is interested in a quick end to the occupation, the Islamists are not so keen. This statement is based on the Islamists' understanding that at present the balance of forces is not in favor of Palestinians, and therefore any solution now will not be the best one for them.
OF COURSE this talk is being overshadowed by the sudden escalation of Palestinian infighting and the potential for civil war. Abbas's brilliant referendum proposal is aimed at forcing a decision one way or another from Hamas.
One way might be the acceptance of the three international conditions, the other might be dissolving the Haniyeh government and creating some kind of emergency government. The more the pressure mounts, the more we will see an escalation of the internal fighting as well as attempts to divert attention by attacks against Israel.
In the words of the famous Lebanese singer Fairouz, ma kibrat ma btisgar - unless it gets bigger, it will not get smaller. Thus the escalation of the internal and external fighting could lead to a breakthrough.
But a political breakthrough this year won't necessarily translate into peace. While acceptance by Hamas - in one form or another - of the existence of Israel could help Abbas negotiate with the Israelis rather than allow the Israelis to act unilaterally, it is unlikely to lead to a comprehensive solution. The strategic weakness of the Palestinian position in the balance of forces with Israel is unlikely to help Abbas reach an equitable and just solution.
On the other hand, a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from parts of the West Bank would provide some short-term relief by having the checkpoints removed, facilitating internal travel. But unless it is done in direct cooperation with the Palestinians, and with the possibility also of free travel to Jordan, it will not produce any long-term relief.
Thus while 2006 might presently be bloody and a breakthrough may still be possible, it is hard to predict any genuinely peaceful outcome within the coming six months.
The writer is founder and director of the Institute of Modern Media at Al-Quds University in Ramallah. www.daoudkuttab.com
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