In another “good-will gesture,” Israel released 198 Palestinian prisoners on Monday – including at least two with blood on their hands – just hours before U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s latest visit to the region. Her task, just like the prisoner release, was to bolster the flailing peace process. But what good, we ask, will either do?
With unpopular lame-duck leaders in Israel, the United States, and the Palestinian Authority, however, we must accept that the process started last year in Annapolis is either dead or so far gone that it cannot be revived.
President Bush – after seven years of a hands-off policy – seems to have decided that a Middle East peace deal could save his legacy. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, beleaguered by accusations of incompetence because of the Second Lebanon War, turned his attention to the process to save his own legacy. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, fearing a Hamas take-over in the west bank similar to Gaza, turned to the peace process as his own life preserver.
We understand – although we do not agree with – their motives, but these men cannot negotiate a lasting agreement or even a temporary one. They simply do not have the support at home.
By the time the January deadline arrives, all of these men will be on their way out of office or already gone. Olmert will be replaced next month in Kadima’s primary, and once he is out of the picture Likud or Labor (or both) is likely to call for early elections that will likely bring Benjamin Netanyahu back to office.
President Bush will complete his term in January and whether the new president is Democrat Barack Obama or Republican John McCain, neither is likely to jump right into the Middle East process before he’s at least unpacked his unmentionables in the White House.
As for Abbas, his term as president also ends in January, although this has not received much attention. He has publicly stated that he will not seek re-election, and Hamas has said that as soon as Abbas’ term officially ends, the terror group will no longer recognize his political clout.
This bodes ill for the Middle East. Abbas has no clear protÃ©gÃ© and Fatah has made little progress in reforming itself. Once he steps down, Hamas is likely to take control of the west bank, either through politics or force.
Israel’s gestures are obviously meant to help the Palestinians choose Fatah over Hamas, but they will not be enough. Freed prisoners are glorified for their actions and those still in jail become living martyrs.
The only way to change the Palestinian street is with economics. The Palestinians have seen how the intifada destroyed their economy, but they have not been presented with viable alternatives. These next few months should be used to encourage economic growth in the west bank so that the Palestinians feel they really stand to benefit from peace. Only then can the peace process resume with renewed support on the street and newly elected leaders.