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The odds against Tzipi Livni

Monday, September 22, 2008

Can Tzipi Livni deliver a peace with the Palestinians?

She has on occasion expressed more sympathy toward the Palestinians than other Israeli leaders and has led Israel's negotiating team since the Annapolis conference. Her Palestinian counterparts have welcomed her victory.

If Livni can cobble together a cabinet, she is likely to continue the peace process. But Israeli-Palestinian peace is more elusive today than at any time since the first Oslo agreement was signed in 1993.

Here are three reasons why:

The first, and most important is that Israeli political and military leaders can no longer control the settlement movement they launched and supported soon after Israel occupied the Palestinian territories of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza in 1967.

The Israeli establishment's plans have been nothing if not consistent. They have colonized the territories in a way that swallows up the best land and water and maintains sovereignty over East Jerusalem. The peace talks since 1993 have tinkered around the edges of the borders Israel wants - and that it has tried to cement through its separation wall - as it has sought a Palestinian leadership weak enough to accept such a deal.

The right-wing leaders of the Israeli settlement movement are too strong to budge. To prove it, the settlers have been escalating their attacks on Palestinians - and even on Israeli soldiers - unchallenged by Israel's politicians, military or courts.

The second reason why a peace deal is not possible at this time is that Israel has indeed weakened the Palestinian leadership. Though Israeli and American leaders have embraced Mahmoud Abbas as a moderate, Israel has not eased its occupation.

After Abbas was elected as president of the Palestinian Authority in 2005, and before the electoral victory of Hamas in 2006, there was no freedom of movement and goods, no freeze on settlements and no meaningful release of Palestinian prisoners. Indeed, the pitiful number of prisoners released - a few hundred at a time when around 10,000 remain in Israeli jails and dozens more are arrested each day - only undermines Palestinian leaders and underscores their powerlessness.

Many Palestinians believe another uprising against the Israeli occupation is at hand, though there is little clarity on what shape it might take. And more Palestinians are questioning the two-state solution and speaking of alternatives - including a struggle for equal rights in the whole land of Israel/Palestine.

Arafat was the only Palestinian leader who could have arrayed the majority of Palestinians behind a deal that would have recovered most of the occupied territories while, at the same time, pushing them to compromise on their right of return. The present leadership has no such power.

The third reason a peace agreement is not on the horizon is the position of the U.S. administration. It insists on remaining the primary broker in this conflict and limiting the role that might be played by the Europeans or Russians. But it does not do what it takes to push peace.

Abbas is scheduled to visit President George W. Bush yet again this month, while Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice makes periodic visits to the region. These pleasantries are no substitute for real diplomacy. At the same time, both Barack Obama and John McCain have vociferously supported U.S. aid to Israel and sent the same signals to the settlers' enterprise.

A Livni cabinet might usher in a different tone in dealing with the Palestinians. But Israel's 40-year colonization of the West Bank has gone unchallenged by so many for so long that it will take much more than that to deliver peace.

Nadia Hijab is a senior fellow at the Institute for Palestine Studies in Washington. Distributed by Agence Global.

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