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International Journalists Discuss Prospects for Resolving Middle East Conflict

American media have hailed the landslide victory of Mahmoud Abbas in Palestinian election, describing the mood in Washington as one of “guarded optimism.” But journalists from the Middle East are more skeptical about the prospects for resolving the turmoil in the region.

On the weekly VOA program International Press Club, host Judith Latham talked with Lebanese editor Rami Khoury and Israeli journalist Janine Zacharia about the implications of the recent Palestinian presidential election.

Rami Khoury, editor of Beirut’s Daily Star, reminds that the political mood in the Arab world is “very different” than it is in the United States and Israel. He says that Arabs are looking to Israel and the United States to make the moves that are needed to push the peace process forward.

Although Israelis and Americans believed that Yasser Arafat was the primary obstacle to peace, the Palestinians have been ready to negotiate for years, according to Mr. Khoury. He says that Palestinians look to Washington for a consistent foreign policy on Israeli settlements, and they want the United States to be impartial and guarantee the security of both parties. Furthermore, they are hoping for what he calls an “activist” American policy.

Among Israeli officials and journalists, the attitude toward the new Palestinian president is a mixture of optimism and skepticism, according to Janine Zacharia, Washington correspondent for the Jerusalem Post.

She says that the Israelis want to see whether Mahmoud Abbas can crack down on Palestinian terrorists. But they are prepared to make some gestures, such as releasing Palestinian prisoners to help Mr. Abbas. However, the Israeli security services are skeptical about his ability to crack down on Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Like Rami Khoury, Janine Zacharia believes that the Bush administration has a critical role to play in the Middle East peace process and needs to get “more engaged” and to designate a high-level person to work on the issue full time.

Ms. Zacharia says that at moment Washington is focused mainly on Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s withdrawal plan from Gaza and how to facilitate it. And she doubts whether there will progress on final status negotiations until at least next year. Earlier this week Israeli Prime Minister Sharon suggested a meeting with the new Palestinian president “in the near future,” and President Bush invited Mr. Abbas to visit the White House. But journalists from the Middle East warn that these gestures are just the beginning of a long and arduous political process.

To listen to all of the comments, click on the audio link above.