Wednesday 16 April 2003

Don't hold your breath

Hopes for Middle East peacemaking are premature. Neither Sharon nor Bush is going to deliver what's needed

by Jonathan Freedland

For once the outlook seems almost sunny. In a conflict where a change in prospects is usually from bleak to bleaker, the Israeli-Palestinian struggle has suddenly begun sprouting apparent green shoots of possibility. Perhaps after a season of war, pray the optimists, this could be the summer of peacemaking in the Middle East.

And there are signs of hope. In the United States, the only outside power with the strength to breathe the near-dead peace process back to life, President Bush and his team have hinted that they might end two-and-a-half years of inactivity and get stuck in. Last week in Belfast, Bush praised Tony Blair's unflagging effort to bring peace to Northern Ireland: "I'm willing to spend the same amount of energy in the Middle East," he promised. That seemed plausible enough. After all, Bush surely owes Blair something for his one-man coalition act during the war on Iraq: US pressure for an Israeli-Palestinian peace seems to have been Blair's price.

History points that way, too. In 1991 Bush's father used the months after a Gulf victory to push Israel to the peace table. Would Israel's most committed friends in the Bush administration allow a repeat performance? Maybe. Last autumn Paul Wolfowitz, the superhawk often cited as the chief architect of the Iraq adventure, was booed at a pro-Israel rally when he insisted that Palestinians, as well as Israelis, were "suffering and dying" and that "hard decisions" would have to be made by both sides. Earlier this year Wolfowitz told the Washington Post that once the Iraq war was over: "Our stake in pushing for a Palestinian state will grow."

But the optimists do not stop there. If Washington demands action, they believe it may find an unexpectedly receptive audience in Jerusalem. The Israeli prime minister's interview this week with the liberal Ha'aretz newspaper seemed to show a new Ariel Sharon, one ready to contemplate painful concessions. He even named the West Bank towns that Israel might have to "part with" and said he recognised the "ethical problems" inherent in Israel continuing to "rule over another people and run their lives."

No wonder the Downing Street optimists are excited. Doesn't this sound like an aged warrior who has finally seen one pivotal enemy, Iraq, removed and at last feels able to make the peace that will be his lasting legacy?

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