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Palestinian Political Crisis

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas held a rare summit meeting on Saturday, the first in a year-and-a-half, in an effort to boost the stalled peace process. Israel now says it will ease travel restriction on Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, and the Defense Minister has announced that Israel is also considering the release of some Palestinian prisoners as a goodwill gesture.

Last week President Abbas renewed his call for new elections while factional fighting broke out again in the Gaza Strip, despite a cease-fire agreement. The rival Palestinian factions, Hamas and Fatah, have been locked in a power struggle since Hamas won parliamentary elections in January. Hamas controls the parliament and the cabinet while Fatah holds the presidency. Talks between Hamas and Fatah on forming a unity government have failed. And, Hamas has vowed to boycott an early vote, calling the move by Mr. Abbas a “coup.”

Prime Minister Olmert has called the political crisis an internal Palestinian issue. And according to Nathan Guttman of the Forward, most Israelis have refrained from discussing publicly the prospect for early Palestinian elections. Speaking with host Judith Latham of VOA News Now’s International Press Club, Mr. Guttman says Israelis are concerned about the viability of the Palestinian Authority and they see “no future for negotiations” so long as Hamas is in power. However, it is not clear that Fatah can win, even in an early election, and Nathan Guttman suggests that the call for elections may be as political maneuver on the part of Mr. Abbas in the hope Hamas would become more receptive to the idea of a national unity government.

Moreover, Palestinian journalist Nadia Bilbassy of Al-Arabiya television says she doubts Hamas can be persuaded to participate in an early election. According to Ms. Bilbassy, Hamas, which came to power less than a year ago through a “democratic, transparent election,” sees the call for new elections as an attempt to “get rid of Hamas” and a capitulation to Western pressure. In fact, Western countries have refused to provide assistance to the Hamas government, which does not recognize Israel’s right to exist.

Gerard Baker, Washington editor of The Times of London, says British Prime Minister Tony Blair firmly backs President Abbas’ call for early elections. He notes that Mr. Blair has only a few months left in office, and he has committed himself to “move the Israel-Palestine peace process forward.” But Gerard Baker concedes that the continuing turmoil within the Palestinian Authority represents an enormous, and perhaps insurmountable, hurdle.

Nadia Bilbassy agrees with Mr. Baker that the current political dilemma represents a “stalemate.” She says breaking the impasse will require leadership on all sides, putting the needs of the Palestinian people above partisanship, as well as political courage on the part of Western leaders. And she adds, “everyone” in the Middle East understands that – without the direct involvement of the United States – nothing is likely to happen. But because so many Palestinians are now living below the poverty line and their situation is becoming increasingly desperate, Nadia Bilbassy says, the leadership has to come up with “some practical arrangement” to break the deadlock.

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