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Last Updated: Tuesday, 15 November 2005, 15:42 GMT
Gaza deal unlikely to foster trust
By Roger Hardy
BBC Middle East analyst

An Israeli soldier checks a Palestinian man at a checkpoint in Nablus
Restrictions will be eased in the West Bank
After the personal intervention of US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Israel and the Palestinians have reached agreement on opening border crossings linking the Gaza Strip with Egypt, Israel and the West Bank.

For weeks, agreement had been blocked by the Palestinians' demand for full control of the crossings and Israeli security concerns.

The agreement is important for two reasons.

For the Palestinians, it is vital that goods and people can enter and leave Gaza. Only when border crossings are functioning normally can they hope to lift their economy from its current state of crisis - and can they begin to feel a bit less beleaguered.

For the Bush administration, the deal matters for a very different reason.

US officials want some tangible sign that Israel's withdrawal from Gaza in September really has enhanced the prospects for reviving the moribund Middle East peace process.

They also need to see some good news coming from the Middle East, at a time when the bad news, especially from Iraq, is starting to hurt the Bush presidency.

It is this which explains why Condoleezza Rice invested such time and effort, as well as her own personal authority, in securing a deal on what are relatively minor, relatively technical issues.

High-level engagement in the details of Middle East peacemaking is something the Bush administration has tended to avoid.

Lack of trust

In the two months since Israel completed its pullout from Gaza, the two sides have either not spoken to one another at all or engaged in squabbling and recrimination.

But now that the US secretary of state has intervened to break the deadlock, is it likely the diplomatic momentum can be sustained?

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (left) and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon
Condoleezza Rice (left) has staked her own authority on the deal

Experts are doubtful.

There is still precious little trust between the two sides.

Moreover both are in pre-election mode. Palestinian elections are due in January, and it seems likely there will be Israeli elections in the spring.

The need to appeal to the voters does not predispose leaders on either side to contemplate serious concessions.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas - facing a serious challenge from the Islamist group Hamas - wants to see movement on the big issues of borders, settlements, refugees and Jerusalem.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon - facing challenges from within his ruling Likud Party and from a Labour Party struggling to revive its fortunes - wants to avoid the big sensitive issues and concentrate instead on the need to curb Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups.

Real breakthroughs, if they are to happen at all, are not likely before the New Year.

Israel and the Palestinians



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