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Analysts Say Major Progress Unlikely in Arab-Israel Peace Process


U.S. President George Bush is in the Middle East in an effort to reinvigorate the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. However, some Middle East analysts say this is an especially difficult time to pursue Arab-Israeli peacekeeping, and it is unlikely any agreement will be reached in the near future. VOA correspondent Meredith Buel has details in this background report from Washington.

President Bush is in the Middle East for his second visit this year to participate in the celebration of Israel's 60th anniversary and to boost efforts for the latest round of peace talks that began at a conference near Washington last year.

"Today, Palestinians and Israelis each understand that helping the other to realize their aspirations is key to realizing their own aspirations and both require an independent, democratic, viable Palestinian state," he said.

The president originally set a goal of creating a two-state solution to one of the world's most difficult and longest-running conflicts before he leaves office next January.

Expectations have been scaled back, but the administration wants the two sides to agree on the boundaries of a Palestinian state. While there have been numerous negotiating sessions little progress has been reported.

Ghaith al-Omari, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and former foreign policy advisor to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, says he doubts such an agreement will be reached anytime soon.

"I think what we are hearing from the administration right now, this complete insistence that we can reach a deal, a conflict ending deal by the end of the year, is highly unrealistic," said Nathan Brown, the director of Middle East studies at George Washington University.

He says visible barriers, such as roadblocks, the Israeli-built wall in the West Bank and Jewish settlement expansion all stand in the way of progress in peacemaking.

But Brown says a more serious obstacle is the significant decline of the Palestinian Authority.

"What has been happening on the Palestinian side I think is a decay, really a catastrophic decay, in Palestinian institutions and in a sense in the ability of any Palestinian leadership to speak authoritatively for the Palestinians and I do not think that is good news for anybody," he said.

Analysts say the lack of progress between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators may be strengthening Hamas militants who control the Gaza Strip.

Brown says Hamas is putting down deep roots in Gaza.

"Hamas is, from what we can tell, running Gaza as sort of a party militia that has taken over. They have some sort of thin veneer of legality and some claim to institutional legitimacy. But in a sense what they have been doing is entrenching themselves, digging themselves in deeper as sort of a one party dictatorship. We hear about closing down of newspapers, harassment of opposition."

Militants in Gaza have been firing rockets into southern Israel and Egypt has been trying to broker a ceasefire with Hamas.

Palestinian analyst Ghaith al-Omari expects the Israeli military to launch a major operation in Gaza in the coming months.

"The issue of Israeli military victory, I would not have touched upon it were it not for the fact that it seems to be the most likely event this summer. The trajectory of where Hamas is going, where Israel is going, makes me believe that there will be a military operation, a wide scale military operation in Gaza this summer," he said.

President Bush says he wants negotiators to define a future Palestinian state and hopes that by doing so other thorny issues such as the future of Jerusalem and refugees can also be settled.

Brown says Palestinians are growing weary of a process that over the past two decades has not produced significant results.

"They have heard this story before. Palestinians think they were promised a state back in the original Oslo Accords. You read the Oslo Accords and that is not what they say, but perhaps it is an understandable interpretation. But in a sense I think most Palestinians feel that we are not going to buy that bill of goods one more time. A promise of eventual statehood means absolutely nothing at this point," he said.

Brown says the two-state solution is not merely unrealized, but is rapidly reaching the point of no longer being feasible.

Al-Omari says if the talks collapse he expects violence to erupt and predicts the next American president will inherit a chaotic situation.

"If the two-state solution paradigm disappears what happens is quite predictable. Every time that a major paradigm collapses, we go through a period of chaos. No one knows that the end is going to be, going to look like, but the process itself we know is going to be quite bloody and messy," he said.

Bush administration officials say negotiations to define a Palestinian state are exceedingly difficult, but not impossible.

Meanwhile, no one is predicting any major breakthroughs during the president's trip to the Middle East.