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Post-Withdrawal Political Challenges Face Israeli, Palestinian Leaders

British journalist Graham Usher of The Economist magazine, Washington correspondent for the Jerusalem Post, Nathan Guttman, and Palestinian journalist Daoud Kuttab, director of the Institute of Modern Media at al-Quds University in Ramallah, joined host Judith Latham this week on VOA News Now's "International Press Club".

On August 15, Israel began evacuating all Jewish settlers from Gaza and from four settlements in the West Bank - completing the operation this week without bloodshed.

British journalist Graham Usher of The Economist magazine said the Israeli government had originally envisioned a timetable of three to four weeks, but to everybody's surprise the withdrawal was completed in less than a week. According to Mr. Usher, who covered the disengagement in Gaza and the West Bank, what is most remarkable is that the settlements were removed without loss of life or serious injury and with the support of the "majority of Israeli public opinion."

However, the domestic political challenges facing Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas complicate the long-term outlook. Graham Usher said Mr. Sharon would be preoccupied until next year's Israeli elections with the challenge from former finance minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the leadership of the Likud Party. Mr. Usher noted that at Sunday's cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Sharon made it "absolutely clear" there would be no further withdrawals from the West Bank, and the "burden of proof" was on the Palestinian Authority to govern Gaza and disarm the various Palestinian military wings, especially Hamas.

Washington correspondent for the Jerusalem Post Nathan Guttman agreed that Prime Minister Sharon's survival depends on how well the Palestinian Authority can consolidate its control over Gaza. But he noted that, while Israelis see the elimination of terrorism as a precondition for peace negotiations, Americans and Palestinians think that Israel is obligated under the terms of the "road map" to dismantle West Bank settlements and illegal outposts simultaneously.

According to Palestinian journalist Daoud Kuttab, director of the Institute of Modern Media at al-Quds University in Ramallah, the United States is the key partner in ending the conflict, but Palestinians are skeptical about Washington's resolve. And they are reserving judgment until they see if the borders from Gaza to the West Bank and to the rest of the world by sea and air will be opened and if the Israelis will follow through on U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's recommendations regarding further settlement withdrawals.

The Economist's Graham Usher said the "big question" is whether Washington can put enough pressure on Prime Minister Sharon to enter into negotiations with Mahmoud Abbas because ending Gaza's isolation is "absolutely vital" to reviving the Palestinian economy. Palestinian journalist Daoud Kuttab noted that otherwise the situation would play into the hands of the "Islamic radicals."

But, according to Nathan Guttman of the Jerusalem Post, what is needed most is a "massive international effort" to rebuild the Gaza Strip with help from the World Bank, which could in turn help the Palestinian Authority demonstrate to their people that progress is being made. All three journalists asserted that continuing Jewish settlements in the West Bank pose a serious obstacle to long-term peace prospects in the Middle East, but they agreed that the evacuation of Gaza was an encouraging first step.