Mideast peace effort requires unity of will

PUBLISHED : Monday, 19 March, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 19 March, 2007, 12:00am

Palestinian political factions have ironed out differences and formed a government of unity, but being able to speak with a single voice does not hide the fundamental flaw that remains: there can be no peace in the Middle East until all members acknowledge Israel's right to exist. With the Islamist Hamas movement of prime minister Ismail Haniyeh refusing to renounce violence, security and stability will continue to be a dream for the region's people.

Turning back the clock to before Israel's creation and joining of the United Nations in 1948, as Hamas wants, is simply not an option. To think otherwise is to give unrealistic aspirations to the world's 9.4 million Palestinians. Israel's prime minister, Ehud Olmert, made that clear yesterday, as has the US, the foremost power-broker in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Moving forward in peace negotiations is not possible while an integral part of the Palestinian government refuses to recognise Israeli sovereignty.

Peace is not the most pressing matter for Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip, Israeli-occupied West Bank and in refugee camps throughout the Middle East: their most immediate craving is respite from the poverty exacerbated by the freeze in foreign aid that Hamas' election win last year prompted. The lack of funding for the government resulted in faction-fighting that brought Palestinian society to the brink of collapse.

Now that Hamas and president Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah group have been able to weld together a government of unity, some of the aid will return. But as long as Hamas stubbornly remains rooted in the doctrine of its founding, there will be no significant movement in brokering peace with Israel, the goal that will drag Palestinians beyond international handouts to self-sufficiency.

Israelis want peace with their neighbours as much as Palestinians do. Mr Olmert has filled the void since Hamas' election victory with discussions with Mr Abbas on how to push ahead with the road map for peace brokered in 2003 by the quartet of the United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia.

Those talks will continue, as will other behind-the-scenes meetings between Israelis and Palestinians and other interested groups and individuals. Resumption of the peace process will remain elusive, though, while Hamas continues to push for its objective of Israel's destruction.

There can obviously be no two-state solution - Israel and a separate Palestinian nation - as outlined in the road map, while this stance continues. Nor is Hamas' position to be tolerated: Israel is a member of the UN and Palestinians are likewise represented, and a founding principle of the world body is that nations recognise one another's right to exist.

A unified government moves Palestinians from the brink of starvation and offers them hope of poverty alleviation. But only when Hamas turns to diplomacy and a redefining of its ways to meet 21st century expectations will Palestinians truly have the chance for the peace and prosperity that they deserve.