Hectic political activities in the first week of November may initiate the peace process in the Middle East.
All eyes on November developments
RAMALLAH, WEST BANK // The first week of November promises to be a crucial week in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. US citizens will, on Nov 4, decide who will be the next US president to attempt to broker peace between Palestinians and Israelis. Israeli politicians, meanwhile, will have decided by Nov 3 if Israelis are to contest early elections next year or whether they can agree on forming a new coalition government under Tzipi Livni, the foreign minister and head of the ruling Kadima Party. Also on Nov 3, Palestinian factions are to meet in Cairo to see if they can end the current divisions on the Palestinian political scene. The bickering between Fatah and Hamas continues unabated, but pressure is growing on both movements to come to some kind of arrangement that will begin the process of reconciliation. "November could provide the possibility for a new beginning," said Ali Jarbawi, a Palestinian political analyst. "What we know is that one of the three issues - US leadership - will see change. This should at least ensure that the Palestinian and Arab political landscape is freer from the American hegemony over them by the current administration." This could result in movement on the Palestinian-Palestinian dialogue, he said. Mr Jarbawi contends that in the absence of the current administration's refusal to countenance letting Hamas in from the cold, Arab countries, notably Syria, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, who have a vested interest in Palestinian unity, could force the issue. "I think there is an opening for the beginning of some kind of reconciliation between Palestinian groups. Syria is insisting, the Egyptians seem to be working hard on this and the Saudis want an opening." Although there is little likelihood of any agreement between Hamas and Fatah on security control over the Gaza Strip, significantly the distance between the two factions on forming some kind of interim government acceptable to both appears to be diminishing. The argument now centres mainly on whether such a government should be composed of technocrats, similar to the current government under Salam Fayyad, or whether it should be composed of representatives from all the Palestinian factions. Should the two parties agree on the make-up of an interim government to lead them to new elections, the likelihood is also that they will agree to hold both presidential and parliamentary elections in early 2010, thus giving Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, another year to pursue negotiations with Israel. Yet the current US administration is not quite gone yet and should Ms Livni succeed in forming a coalition government by Nov 3, Washington is set to make one last push for an agreement before its time is up. On Thursday, Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, characterised Ms Livni as "dedicated to the peace process" and said should she succeed in forming a government, "of course, we are prepared to make a push". "Some of the things that prime minister [Ehud] Olmert has said demonstrate that Israelis know that the time has come for an agreement. The parties have already made a lot of progress," Ms Rice said in an interview with the Al Arabiya television network. "The fact is, this is the most robust negotiating process that they've had, perhaps ever." The prospect of a concerted push to reach an agreement in the dying days of the Bush administration, however, may in fact hamper Ms Livni's coalition-building efforts. Having signed a deal with the Labor Party, Ms Livni's hopes now rest on agreeing terms with the religious Shas Party. And although Shas is concerned mainly with forcing a concession from Ms Livni on the amount of child allowances the new government will budget for, the party had threatened to leave the current coalition should Mr Olmert negotiate the status of Jerusalem. Party members have expressed their concern that Ms Livni would seek to pursue a shelf agreement with the Palestinians in the short term. "The Shas leadership are relative pragmatists," said Hillel Schenker, an Israeli journalist. "But they are afraid that their constituency is more right wing than they are." Mr Schenker said he was confident that, Shas misgivings notwithstanding, Ms Livni would succeed in forming a coalition government and said the most important near term development would be who the United States will choose as its next leader. "There is a clear difference between the [Barack] Obama and [John] McCain approach to this conflict. Obama has made a clear commitment to becoming immediately involved while McCain has said he will put it in on the back burner." Crucial as November is set to be, however, there can be no getting around that no matter who leads Palestinians, Israelis or indeed Americans, and no matter how concerted the short-term diplomatic efforts, the overall political situation is likely, at best, to remain deadlocked for the foreseeable future. The fundamental differences separating Palestinians and Israelis are as deep as ever. The band may change but the song remains the same. email@example.com