Israel, Palestine won’t reach peace on outside pressure alone

After years of dormancy, moves toward a peace settlement between Israel and Palestine are appearing on several fronts. The Iraq Study Group report contends that an Israeli-Palestinian settlement is essential to a reasonable outcome in Iraq, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has traveled to the region and vowed to step up support for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and President Abbas last month agreed to a cease-fire in the Gaza Strip. And Olmert has offered significant concessions, including the release of numerous Palestinian prisoners, in exchange for the release of an Israeli soldier whose abduction this summer touched off the latest military conflict, between Israel and Lebanon. And Olmert and Abbas have announced they plan to meet before the end of the year, their first meeting since Olmert became prime minister in January.

All of these potentially hopeful signs are counterbalanced by Olmert’s increasing unpopularity in Israel and the outbreak of what could develop into an outright civil war within the Palestinian territories.

The Islamist group Hamas, of course, won January’s Palestinian parliamentary elections, but Abbas, of the Fatah faction, remains as president. Negotiations to form a coalition “unity” government have failed. Abbas has called for new elections, and violence between Hamas and Fatah partisans has broken out in Gaza and elsewhere.

Secretary of State Rice has said it is less important than one might think for Palestine to have a unity government, noting the United States is planning to give the Abbas government tens of millions of dollars. Israel is also on the verge of releasing to President Abbas some $600 million in Palestinian taxes it has withheld since the Hamas victory. That would allow him to pay government workers who have not received full salaries since March — and presumably strengthen his faction vis-a-vis Hamas.

All this looks relatively hopeful. The United States, however, should resist the temptation to jump into negotiations or actively to offer carrots or sticks to various parties. An end to active hostilities and the creation of a viable Palestinian state has seemed close before — remember the Oslo peace process and President Clinton’s last-ditch effort at Camp David in July 2000? — only to be foiled.

An agreement with a chance of lasting must come from war-weariness on both sides, not from outside pressure.