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International Journalists Discuss Current Prospects for Middle East Peace

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, who travels to the Middle East next week, says that the death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat offers new opportunities to revive the peace process. And Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom says that his government is ready to help facilitate Palestinian elections in January.

Rami Khoury, editor of Beirut's Daily Star, says there is guarded optimism in the Arab World regarding the prospects for Middle East peace in a post-Arafat era.

“I think there is a sense that there is a possibility for change, but the general expectation is that the change has to come from Israel rather than from the Palestinians,” says Mr. Khouri. “I don't think people expect a radical change of policy and we're going to see a pretty clear continuation of the existing policies of the Palestinians - their willingness to negotiate a permanent peace and an end to the Israeli occupation and coexistence with Israel. So really the sense is that the ball is in Israel's court.”

Rami Khoury says Palestinians believe that Israel has to decide if it wants to perpetuate a military occupation and sacrifice everything for the sake of what it views as a security blanket to keep the situation under control.

“The current Israeli policy, which focuses on doing everything they can to try to ensure Israel's security and prevent suicide bombings, is not working very well," he says. "It's not giving Israel security nor is it promoting peace. There's resistance against Israel because of the Israeli occupation, harsh military measures, building the wall, assassinating militants, and expanding settlements. So, Israel has five or six things it can do - and must do - to initiate a new perspective on how Israelis and Palestinians can sit down and negotiate peace rather than wage a war.”

Rami Khoury says the Palestinians think that the United States is taking a serious look at becoming more engaged in promoting negotiations.

“The sense, I think, among most Arabs is that the United States is the only external mediator that really has the capability to have an impact [and] that has influence with Israel,” says Mr. Khouri. “But, there is also concern that the United States, when it gets engaged diplomatically, it tends to be more pro-Israeli than fair. The current American government has given the Sharon government in Israel almost everything that it wanted, which is a problem if the U.S. wants to be a mediator.”

Janine Zacharia, Washington correspondent for the Jerusalem Post, says most Israelis feel no regret that Yasser Arafat is now gone.

“I think Israelis understood there was no prospect of a peace agreement so long as Arafat was in charge," he says. "And they are hopeful that perhaps a moderate leadership could emerge with whom they could negotiate. The problem is, as we saw on Sunday with shots fired at Mahmoud Abbas, this Number One among moderate replacements, that there's going to be a power struggle among the Palestinians that could involve groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad flexing their muscles via suicide bombings and also trying to undermine a possible new peace partner.”

Although most Europeans would like to see a resumption of the peace process and a revival of the road map for a two-state solution, Mr. Zacharia says, the only game in town in Israel is probably Prime Minister Sharon's disengagement plan from Gaza.

“And I think the tendency in Israel is, despite Arafat's death, to first implement that plan. Now one positive byproduct of Arafat's death is that now maybe a leader can emerge with whom Israel can negotiate this withdrawal at least,” says Mr. Zacharia. “But I don't think you'll see any willingness on the Israeli side, at least until after we see who wins the elections on January 9 - should they go ahead as scheduled in the Palestinian areas - to really engage in step-by-step negotiations as we had during the '90's."

"You do have a situation, perhaps similar to Iraq, where security will really determine to what extent people are allowed to freely move to get to their polling places," Mr. Zacharia adds. "But should it be relatively calm, I think Israel would allow elections to go ahead and then see who emerges at the Palestinians' future leader. I don't think they will try to meddle in the outcome.”

Aristedes Katoppo is publisher of Sinar Harapan - or the Ray of Hope independent newspaper - in Jakarta. He points out that the President of Indonesia, the world largest Muslim nation - but not a theocratic one - was one of the dignitaries who attended Mr. Arafat's funeral in Cairo. Mr. Katoppo says Indonesians view the Palestinian struggle not as a religious war but as a struggle for freedom and statehood.

“In Indonesia we have had great sympathy for Palestinians because Indonesia achieved its independence in 1945, but only got recognition by the former colonial power four or five years later after a long armed and diplomatic struggle," he says. "Since then I think Indonesia has had a very active role in supporting independence movements all over the world."

“I think it takes more than two to make peace, and it is not just between the state of Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization," he continues. "I think the United States as the single power in the world has great influence, and there is an expectation in Indonesia that in this case the U.S. will for once stay true to its ideal of being a beacon of freedom for all people.”

Although these leading members of the media are united in their opinion that a Middle East peace process should resume, they are divided over who has the greatest responsibility for its success - Israel, the Palestinians, or the United States