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Last Updated: Friday, 22 August, 2003, 14:32 GMT 15:32 UK
Analysis: Missed opportunity in Mid-East

By Tarik Kafala
BBC News Online

Behind the seven-week truce by militant Palestinian groups was real, if modest, progress in the peace process. That truce and any progress have now been blown apart.

Following a bloody bomb attack and Israeli retaliation, the truce has broken down completely, all progress has been reversed, and the main players are back in their familiar roles.

Suicide attack in Jerusalem killed 20
Israel responded quickly to the latest atrocity
Most depressingly, the cycle of attack and counter attack looks like getting back into full swing.

Maybe it was all too good to be true. The truce and the relative lull in violence were holding.

Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas was in talks with the militant groups to extend the truce.

Israelis and Palestinians were in stuttering talks on Israeli troop withdrawals from Palestinian city centres. Bethlehem city centre was back in Palestinian hands and Israeli troops had pulled back from positions deep inside the Palestinian controlled areas of Gaza.

There had been some Palestinian prisoner releases.

The "roadmap" and accompanying US pressure may not have been bringing dramatic breakthroughs, but it appeared for a while to be reducing the violence and making space for a possible breakthrough.

Blame game

If there was an opportunity offered by these developments, it has been missed absolutely.

Palestinians insist that Ariel Sharon was not serious about peace. With every settlement outpost that was brought down, others seemed to pop up.

The killing of Hamas leader Ismail Abu Shanab, Palestinians argue, was also a deliberate provocation. Shanab was, by Hamas standards, a moderate. He was unique among Hamas leaders in arguing that a Palestinian state would have to exist alongside Israel, not instead of it.

Ismail Abu Shanab's funeral
Calls for revenge at Shanab's funeral
Israeli officials say they were never bound by the militants' ceasefire and that the assassination of Shanab is a perfectly reasonable response to the latest Palestinian atrocity.

The immediate future looks grim. Israeli officials are talking about going after the remaining militant leaders one by one.

Hamas are talking bloody revenge.

Civilians on both sides will be bracing themselves for a period of intense violence.

Caught in the middle

In between the militants and Israel is Mahmoud Abbas.

He, with Yasser Arafat's approval, appeared ready to go after the Hamas members behind the most recent bus bombing.

Reports say he was preparing for a round of arrests, tough restrictions on Hamas run mosques and the disbanding of Hamas' network of schools and hospitals. The plans have been dropped, leaving Mr Abbas looking toothless and indecisive.

Israeli and American officials are making their traditional calls for the Palestinian prime minister to dismantle the militant groups.

These have been hollow demands for a long time.

It is not clear what Mr Abbas can do to combat the militants that the Israeli army has not done. He has neither the political authority nor the security forces to go after the well-resourced and popular militant groups.

Disaster for the roadmap

For the roadmap, recent developments will probably spell disaster.

The peace process, heavily endorsed by Washington, has not brought increased security for Israelis, has not improved life for Palestinians, and has not delivered any discernable progress to the overall aim of a peace deal.

If the Palestinians and Israelis have missed and opportunity, it appears that Washington has too.

The US has failed to pressure Israel to stop the construction of the notorious "security barrier" in the West Bank - by George Bush's account a development unlikely to foster confidence between Israelis and Palestinians.

The assassination of Shanab has drawn only the traditional warning that Israel needs "to take into account the effect its actions will have on the peace process" from a White House spokesman.

US Secretary of State Colin Powell has warned that "the end of the roadmap is a cliff that both sides will fall off of".

It is not clear what the United States can or is willing to do to prevent the peace process crashing completely.

Washington has despatched John Wolf, the man in charge of monitoring the progress of the roadmap, to the region.




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