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Mideast Peace Process Under Scrutiny Before Arab Summit

Many Arabs say recent violence in Gaza and Israel is placing the Middle East peace process in jeopardy again. VOA Middle East Correspondent Challiss McDonough reports from Cairo the process is under review ahead of a planned Arab League Summit, set for later this month in Damascus.

Although there is no formal cease-fire in Gaza, the reduction in attacks from both sides indicates that Israel and Hamas are holding back as Egypt attempts to mediate an end to the violence.

The Israeli military offensive in Gaza has inflamed public anger in the Arab world, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas briefly called off talks with Israel over the issue. Israelis are angered over rocket attacks from Gaza as well as last week's killing of eight Israelis in a Jewish seminary.

Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hossam Zaki says Egypt has been warning the Gaza crisis risks undermining the entire peace process.

"Of course, if you have a situation like the one that you have in Gaza, it is a great disturbance to any peace process that is serious and that is credible," he said. "Stabilizing the situation with Gaza will tremendously benefit the focus that we should all be putting on the negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians and helping both parties to go forward in trying to reach a deal."

It is not just Gaza that has strained the peace process in recent months, and there are signs that Arab governments may retreat from the Arab peace initiative re-launched last year, which promises Israel normal relations with all Arab states in exchange for Israeli withdrawal from all land captured in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

Egyptian newspaper columnist Fahmy Howeidy says a particularly sensitive issue is the continued building of West Bank settlements, a practice the U.S.-mediated Annapolis accord signed in November was supposed to forbid.

"Even after the Annapolis conference, they promised they would not have more settlements, but later on, 48 hours [after] they came home from the United States, the orders came out to continue building settlements," he said.

This week, the Israeli government approved construction of 750 new homes in a settlement east of Jerusalem, a move the United Nations has condemned. Israel says the Annapolis agreement does not prohibit it from building new homes in existing settlements, and does not include East Jerusalem.

Hesham Youssef, a senior aide to Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa, says some Arab governments feel they have taken more political risks in pursuing peace than the Israeli government has.

"We are not reconsidering the Arab peace initiative," he said. "The message is that the Arab peace initiative cannot remain on the table forever without a positive response coming from the other side. "

Youssef acknowledges there have been growing calls to reconsider, not just the Arab peace initiative, but the very idea of a two-state solution, with Israeli and Palestinian states side-by-side.

"There are a number of people now, so far in an informal way, talking about the failure of all the efforts leading to a two-state-solution," he added. "And there are those arguing that maybe people should start reconsidering this approach and thinking more in the context of a one-state solution with people having equal rights and responsibilities."

One of those people is Hassan Nafaa, an Egyptian political scientist now heading a think tank in Jordan. In a recent column in Egypt's flagship state-run newspaper, he argued that the Palestinian state as currently envisioned would be "crippled at birth" and incapable of guaranteeing Palestinians their rights.

"I myself wrote an article, a recent article in al-Ahram newspaper that there is no room for two-state solutions and I think this is echoed in all quarters of the Arab world, because the Israelis are continuing to build their settlements," he explained. "There is not really any, almost any, possible land for a Palestinian state left. So where you will build a Palestinian state?"

But the Arab League's Youssef says it is not just pundits and commentators who worry about the future of the two-state solution.

"It is an issue that is being discussed in diplomatic circles as well, but it has not been adopted by anyone as an official position so far," he noted. "But with the continuation of the failure of the peace efforts, people will be thinking about all kinds of ideas. And we hope that we will be able to achieve peace on the basis of international legitimacy, on the basis of international law, on the basis of U.N. resolutions, rather than start opening a Pandora's box that would lead to all kinds of difficulties to all sides."

A generation ago, there was little talk of a two-state solution. Until the Oslo accords were signed in 1993, the Palestinian leadership had formally refused to accept the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state, and most Arab governments took the same stance, with the exception of Egypt and later Jordan.

Many analysts view the failure of the Israelis to halt settlement construction as a lost opportunity for the peace process in the region.

Abdullah El-Ashaal is a former advisor to the Egyptian foreign minister who now teaches international law and political science at several universities in Cairo.

"Israel is losing because the Arab world was accepting Israel in the area," he explained. "The Arab peoples were about to accept Israel, but now they do not know. They are accepting what? They are accepting someone who is killing every day? The two state solution? Ok, all the Arab world welcomed the two-state solution and they wanted to see any concretization of this plan, but nothing has been taking place. "

The Arab League's Deputy Secretary-General for Palestinian Affairs, Mohammed Sobeih, said Arab heads of state will be considering their continued support for the Arab peace initiative when they meet in Damascus at the end of the month.

He said the potential for a two-state solution still exists, but the road to reaching it requires re-evaluation.

That scheduled Arab League summit has been thrown into doubt because of the political crisis in Lebanon. Some leaders, including those of Saudi Arabia and Egypt, may boycott the summit if no president is elected in Lebanon before then. It is not clear how that might affect efforts to push the Arab-Israeli peace process forward.