Cautiously optimistic

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Palestinian leadership circles are cautiously optimistic due to the renewal of high-level American contacts. United States Secretary of State Colin Powell met Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei on May 15 and today, May 17, the prime minister heads a delegation that will confer with US National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice in Berlin.

These contacts are a drink of water after a long drought. The most recent high-level Palestinian-American meeting was last July when US President George W. Bush received previous Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas in the White House. Hence, Palestinian optimism is based on the analysis that the renewal of discussions reflects a US revision of its approach to the conflict, which until now has been to neglect and openly boycott the Palestinian leadership and–lest it be forgotten–the Palestinian people in general.

It is possible that this revision comes as a result of the widespread belief that US Middle East policy is suffering and that the perceptions of the United States and Americans in the region are badly deteriorating. One of these failures, after all, resulted from hasty American support for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s plan for Gaza. Regrettably for all except Sharon, the president of the United States spent what he did not own for a commodity that Sharon never delivered.

Bush rewarded Sharon for his vague plan by conceding international legality, only to find belatedly that Sharon was unable to implement the plan he was rewarded for. This was an embarrassing setback for the Bush administration and for US Middle East policy in general. And it comes hand in hand with other failures, including the dramatic increase in Israeli violence against Palestinians as exemplified by the unnecessary killing of an unprecedented number of people in Gaza, as well as the difficulties that the administration is facing in its occupation in Iraq, including the awkward prisoner abuse scandal. The hope here is that perhaps the Americans are turning a corner.

The other reason for optimism among Palestinians is that this meeting coincided with the news that the most recent meeting of the Quartet, the Middle East working group made up of Russia, the United Nations, the United States and the European Union, has decided to commence discussions of–and perhaps even codify–an "implementing mechanism" that will go beyond the usual Quartet reiteration of commitment to the roadmap and try to stipulate how and when practical steps should be implemented by the parties.

There is, of course, a great deal of caution bound up in this new optimism. Palestinians also fear that this meeting is only designed to serve American public relations needs and defuse the growing anger against and criticism of the United States in the region. One indicator of the possible lack of seriousness were Colin Powell’s recent comments about President Arafat. They seem particularly odd given that nearly all involved have acknowledged that the Palestinian people can only be delivered to the peace process and a ceasefire if the president throws his political weight and endorsement behind it.

The unilateral Israeli approach is facing a deadlock, whether it comes from inside Israel or from Palestinian-Israeli relations themselves. The recent escalation in violence should be encouragement enough to find another way out. Given a possible renewal of American and international peace efforts, it is useful to remind all involved that while it is very hard to make a unilateral approach succeed, a comprehensive package of three components–security, political rewards and economic benefits–has a good chance of success. But every component must include enough reciprocity to allow each of the two sides to feel that they are making progress towards their respective objectives.

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