WHILE the United States and leading European Union members concentrate their attention on Iran and its alleged long-term intention to manufacture nuclear weapons, the ever-present Middle East problem of relations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority is moving into another critical period. Next Wednesday the Palestinians will go to the polls to elect a parliament whose membership will determine the Authority's policies for the next few years. Two months later Israel will hold its own parliamentary election which will similarly point the direction of policies for some time to come. Yesterday the present leaders of the two sides made positive, if conditional, statements about the future of negotiations. Israel's acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who will lead the new Kadima (“Forward”) party created by Ariel Sharon, said that if elected his policy would be to re-open the stalled negotiations with the Palestinians for the permanent two-state solution envisaged in the peace road-map devised by the United States, Russia, the EU and the UN. However, Mr Olmert insisted that his readiness to talk was conditional on Palestinian violence against Israel ending. For his part, the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas welcomed Mr Olmert's statement and said his readiness to resume talks was conditional on Israeli settlement-building activity ending and the status of East Jerusalem being put on the agenda. There is probably more to this familiar ritual dance than is usually the case. Mr Olmert will want to make his mark before the Israeli election as a man with a distinctive and realisable peace policy; and before next week's election Mr Abbas needs to re–assert his authority as a leader who can negotiate on equal terms with Israel after a period when he has seemed to accept Mr Sharon's ascendancy. The Palestinian leader's task is difficult because of the disillusionment of the electorate with the present majority party, Fatah, and the support being generated by the Hamas party, part of the radical group whose opposition to Israel is deeply-rooted. If Hamas gets an influential footing in the new Palestinian parliament it will be difficult for Mr Abbas to guarantee an end to all militant activity. As always, the Israeli-Palestinian future is shackled to its past and the breakthrough to mutual trust extremely difficult to bring about.


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