A negotiated solution still the best for Middle East

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 14 June, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 14 June, 2006, 12:00am

The explosion last week that killed eight members of a Palestinian family on a beach in the northern Gaza Strip looks likely to reverberate for some time.

The horrific deaths have come at a time of danger and uncertainty, even by the standards of the Middle East's most intractable conflict. The immediate fallout is worrying enough. Hamas militants have called an end to a shaky 16-month truce which placed some restraint on attempts by its fighters to fire rockets into Israel. This in turn is bound to result in more targeted assassinations by the Israelis in retaliation - such as yesterday's rocket strikes, which killed two militants but also nine civilians in Gaza.

There are political ramifications too. The tragedy will aggravate internal divisions in Palestine exposed by president Mahmoud Abbas' decision to call a referendum on statehood that implicitly recognises Israel's right to exist and tests support for negotiations. The Islamist Hamas movement, which defeated Mr Abbas' Fatah faction in January's election, calls the move an attempted coup. And Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has a lonely sales job on his first visit to Europe as he pushes a unilateral solution to the conflict, under which Israel would give up remote Jewish settlements on the West Bank, annex major areas containing others, and withdraw behind new borders.

On his first stop, in London, Mr Olmert was given the answer he should hear again and again. British Prime Minister Tony Blair refused to publicly endorse the plan for partial withdrawal, which follows the pullout from the Gaza Strip last year.

Mr Blair rightly insisted that negotiations, and not unilateral disengagement from the Palestinians behind a defensive wall, remained the only way towards a lasting peace settlement for Israel. The withdrawal from Gaza is a case in point. Israel no longer rules over a million Palestinians living in crowded conditions. But it still controls entry and exit and customs revenue. Not surprisingly, border violence continues.

Mr Blair is also right to warn the international community that if it does not do enough to ensure that negotiations work, the Israelis can be expected to continue with their plan to act unilaterally.

Deep divisions among Palestinians complicate the political situation. Hamas was elected on a domestic platform of improving the standard of living, but has been frustrated by a freeze on foreign aid because of its failure to renounce violence against Israel. International mediators - the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations - have wisely decided to send aid to the Palestinian Authority for a time to avert its collapse and civil disorder over unpaid wages. The international community would be wiser still to do everything in its power to help find a formula that opens the door to negotiations, whether it be Mr Abbas' or some other way.