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Peace in Arab-Israeli conflict slowly becoming a reality, say U experts

Experts from the U’s Middle East Center foresee changes that could lead to a more promising future in the Arab-Israeli conflict because of the fresh approach the new Palestinian leader brings to the bargaining table.

“This is the greatest window of opportunity there has been for a very long time,” said Peter Sluglett, professor of history in the Middle East Center.

Ibrahim Karawan, director of the U’s Middle East Center, was optimistic about Abbas’ potential to make minor advances.

“He could make enough difference in creating a different climate that would help move things toward breaking the current stalemate,” he said.

What needs to happen?

Sluglett said it is ultimately the Israelis who control the situation.

“It is not a negotiation by equals-the Israelis are supported by the U.S.,” he said.

However, Karawan said Abbas does have a bargaining chip if he can contain militant organizations like Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

“The Israeli side happens to be, at the time, interested in the issue of withdrawal from Gaza,” Karawan said.

In order for this to happen, Abbas must concede that the Gaza Strip will not become another Taliban-like breeding ground and that some progress can be made in dismantling the infrastructure of militant groups.

Sluglett said, in addition to turning over the Gaza Strip, Israel should agree to evacuate the West Bank and adjust the frontiers.

However, Karawan said, under Ariel Sharon’s share of Israel’s newly formed coalition government-between Sharon and Shimon Peres-it is not realistic that Israel will withdraw from the West Bank.

“The coalition will split if we reach that stage,” Karawan said.

Any sort of results may be enough for Abbas to rally the Palestinians’ support, according to Sluglett.

“If [Abbas] gets something [from Israel], these groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad will have to say to their constituency, ‘Perhaps it’s not all we wanted, but perhaps it’s best we take it,'” Sluglett said. “If he can say, ‘I have managed to get X and your suicide bombing has gotten you nowhere’…then he’ll be fine.”

Karawan agreed that there is enough room to step in the right direction if all parties involved moved prudently.

He added that Abbas wants health and economic development from the Americans, and for them to be full partners in the peace process.

If the United States and Israel were to cooperate on some level and allow Abbas to say to the Palestinians, “Through negotiations, we are able to produce results,” then everyone would benefit, Karawan said.

However, he added that this would not convince Hamas and Islamic Jihad their years of military action proved fruitless.

“They are already saying that Israeli plans to withdraw from Gaza resulted from their resort to force,” Karawan said. “If there is an Israeli withdrawal, everyone of their contesting forces will try to claim that it resulted from their side’s pursuit of their favorite mode of struggle.”

He added that it is a select few militants who are perpetuating the violence that has been seen since the election.

Only a few extremists are needed to kill in a dramatic way and force Israel to strike back in “what is not likely to be a surgical strike…which would create a climate characterized by antagonism and hostility,” Karawan said.

While the bulk of Palestinians are tired and aware of the limitations of sheer reliance on military force, the recent operations against Israel are “a message to Abbas, which in essence says, ‘We can frustrate what you are doing,'” Karawan said.

While both experts have said Israel and Palestine need to make concessions, they added that the United States must make a concerted effort toward peace by placing pressure on Israel.

Ultimately, the United States has proven in the past that it is incapable of doing so, Sluglett said.

“There’s no reason on earth why they should be defended…there is no point in a road map when there is no incentive to enforce the provision and this administration finds it difficult to do so.”

Karawan agreed that the United States is unlikely to pressure Israel and added, “In that regard, whoever has power on the Palestinian Authority may be tempted to engage in more decisive action against Hamas” to coax Israel to give concessions. Such actions may lead to civil war and possibly even assassination, he added.

What is likely to happen?

In sum, Sluglett said Abbas is a man “who thinks, ‘I would like to settle this problem in my lifetime.’…There’s not much doubt over what’s being negotiated, it just has to be packaged to appear to be the least sacrifice on both sides.”

He added that if the United States changes its tradition and decides to pressure Israel and benefit the Palestinians, it will “increase good will to the U.S. in the region.”

Karawan summarized the potential, saying, “The only way to move at this time is incrementally because…it is impossible to move from not trusting the other side at all to giving the other side all your cards and all your concessions…I think [Abbas] should give up on the idea that there is an immediate solution…the conflict lasted for so long it cannot be settled overnight.”

He reiterated that, “small numbers on either side could attempt to subvert the process, to reverse it and create a different climate under which concessions could not be made.”

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