Is It a Mirage? Glimmers of Hope in the Holy Land

It's probably too much to hope that there could be a break in the seemingly endless Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But some signs are pointing in that direction.

At a high-profile conference in London on Jan. 14, Palestinian delegates promised via video link to implement political reforms long demanded by the West. In Riyadh, press reports say Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah is dusting off his peace plan of last year. One Riyadh source says top Saudis want the Bush Administration to hurry up and finish its business with Iraq so that it can turn to the Palestinian question. In Israel, too, "[Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon knows that Bush will be looking for progress on the Palestinian front" after the Iraq standoff is over, says Gerald Steinberg, a political scientist at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv.

The most intriguing possibility is that the Israeli elections will create an opening for talks. Sharon's Likud Party will likely win the largest share of the vote on Jan. 28. But the tough-talking Prime Minister won't have anything like the freedom to maneuver he anticipated when he called early elections three months ago. Recent allegations that Sharon's 1999 Likud leadership campaign received an illegal $1.5 million loan have cut sharply into Likud's lead and undermined Sharon's credibility.

Sharon probably won't be kicked out of office, but his weakened position may force him to show more flexibility on a range of issues, from public finances to the Palestinians, than he has so far. Polls predict that Likud will win 32 seats in the election and Labor 20, while a once-obscure centrist and secular party, Shinui, will likely come in third with 16 seats in the 120-member Knesset. To forge a government, Sharon is angling for a broad-based coalition rather than teaming up with other right-wing and religious parties. The latter would be a recipe for paralysis, he believes. That leaves Labor and perhaps Shinui as Sharon's partners. "A national unity government will be the only option after the elections," says Yosef "Tommy" Lapid, Shinui's leader.

A 67-year-old former journalist, Lapid has attracted voters alarmed at the ultra-religious fringe's influence and disgusted with the major parties for failing to restore security. Lapid doesn't offer radical solutions to the conflict. But he does argue for abandoning Jewish settlements deep in the West Bank and Gaza. With Labor's leader, Amram Mitzna, stumping for a quick resumption of negotiations with the Palestinians, Shinui's presence in government could create enough critical mass to get Sharon to agree to talks. Mitzna has vowed not to rule with Sharon, but he could be forced to play ball by Labor elders such as Shimon Peres.

Of course, negotiators will have to find a way to deal with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, whom Bush and many Israelis don't want at the table. Arafat may agree to stay in the background, letting a new Palestinian Prime Minister handle the talks. A huge gulf also remains between Sharon's vision of a Palestinian state and what the Palestinians might accept. Sharon has talked about "painful concessions" and endorsed Bush's 2005 target for a Palestinian state, but he will take plenty of convincing to make substantive offers. Still, there is another side of the equation that offers some hope. All but the most extreme Israelis--and Palestinians, for that matter--now want a way out of the violence that has turned the West Bank and Gaza into humanitarian disaster zones. Palestinians are making tentative efforts to change their leadership. The frustrated Israeli electorate won't have infinite patience, either.

By Neal Sandler in Jerusalem and Stanley Reed in London

Edited by Rose Brady

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