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Tuesday, 5 November, 2002, 17:59 GMT
Mid-East concerns over Israel elections
Israeli tank and burning tyres in Nablus, West Bank
The elections mean an uncertain future for the region

An air of resignation descended on would-be peace brokers in the Middle East after the announcement of early general elections in Israel.

The drawing up of a "road map" leading to a Palestinian state and security for the Israelis - already a task fraught with difficulty - now inevitably faces delay and an uncertain outcome, particularly if the polls produce a more right-wing government.

That would be problematic enough if the Israel-Palestinian conflict were the only crisis in the Middle East at present.

But the possibility of even greater volatility in Israel and in the Palestinian territories during the election campaign could also clearly complicate the Iraq crisis - even more so if the diplomacy were to run into the ground and a war with Iraq became more likely.

Need for momentum

Hardly a surprise then that some diplomats believe the risks in the coming weeks will be heightened if the attempts to revive the peace process are seen to grind to a complete halt.

Debris after Kfar Saba bombing
Palestinian militants will be urged to rein in suicide bombers
The Americans have been consulting Arab governments on a draft road map. Some of the governments closely engaged in the Middle East peace efforts will argue that it is all the more important now that the momentum is kept up.

Otherwise, they say, it will simply fuel suspicions that the United States is preoccupied by Iraq at the expense of resolving the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

One diplomat said it would be an "own goal" if the work on drawing up a road map to peace was sidelined because of the elections.

But the international community will also be keeping up its efforts to persuade Palestinian militant groups to rein in the suicide bombers.

Such attacks, diplomats say, only serve as a Palestinian own goal when a new Israeli Government will now have to be persuaded to return to the negotiating table and at a time when Israeli public opinion can determine the course of events.

Known quantity

And what if Binyamin Netanyahu were to defeat Ariel Sharon in a run-off for the Likud leadership and that same public were to return him as prime minister at the head of a more hawkish government?

Binyamin Netanyahu
Netanyahu is well acquainted with dealing with the Americans
On the face of it, the hoped-for three-year timetable of the peace process would seem even more vulnerable. But, as some point out, against that Mr Netanyahu is a known quantity in the international community - and well acquainted with dealing with the Americans.

Mr Sharon said it was his wish to preserve Israel's special relationship with the US. That was one of the main reasons he gave up his efforts to court ultra-nationalist parties just to stay in power, even though he said elections "are the last thing Israel needs right now".

With three months of potentially bitter infighting, fierce rhetoric on the hustings and no end in sight to the violence Israel will probably be more - rather than less - of a factor to be taken into account in the manoeuvrings over Iraq.


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