Iranian nuclear talks expected to go past scheduled deadline


Negotiations for an agreement on Iran’s nuclear program will go past the scheduled deadline, several officials said from Vienna, where the final round of talks was underway.

The agreement was scheduled to be concluded on Tuesday.

On Sunday, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif left the negotiations and flew home to Tehran for consultations after first meeting with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. Zarif is scheduled to return on Tuesday, the deadline day for the talks.

The talks between Iran and the six world powers were expected to continue for a few days beyond the deadline, according to reports.

British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said the world powers do not have to sign a deal in Vienna.

“No deal is better than a bad deal,” Hammond said. “There are red lines that we cannot cross and some very difficult decisions and tough choices are going to have to be made by all of us.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu criticized the deal on Sunday, saying “there is no demand that Iran change its behavior and its violations are being completely overlooked. Its extreme demands, as well as the concessions to Iran, are increasing.”

President Barack Obama said in April that the interim framework agreement achieved then was “a good deal” that “meets our core objectives, including strict limitations on Iran’s program and cutting off every pathway that Iran could take to develop a nuclear weapon.”

Netanyahu and other critics of the deal, which would gradually lift sanctions on Iran, say elements of the emerging deal allow Iran to continue a degree of uranium enrichment that would enable it to creep toward nuclear offensive capabilities.

U.S., Iran resume talks on preliminary nuclear deal as deadline looms


The United States and Iran resumed negotiations on Thursday aimed at clinching a nuclear deal before a March 31 deadline, and officials close to the talks said some kind of preliminary agreement between Tehran and six powers was possible.

As the talks began, Washington and Tehran took opposing stands on Saudi-led air strikes in Yemen against rebels allied to Iran who are fighting to oust the country's president, but it was unclear whether this would affect the nuclear talks.

The two sides are seeking a political framework accord by the end of this month that would lay the foundations for a full deal by June 30.

Under a final settlement, Tehran would halt sensitive nuclear work for at least a decade and in exchange, international sanctions on Iran would be lifted. This would aim to end the country's 12-year nuclear standoff with the West and reduce the risk of another war in the Middle East.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz met their Iranian counterparts, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and Atomic Energy Organization chief Ali Akbar Salehi, in the Swiss city of Lausanne.

Earlier, Iranian media quoted Zarif as condemning the Saudi-led military operation against the Shi'ite Muslim Houthi fighters in Yemen, and demanding that it stop.

By contrast, Kerry spoke to the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council members on Thursday and welcomed their decision to take action against the Houthis, a senior U.S. official said.

However, neither Kerry nor Zarif responded when asked by a reporter in Lausanne to comment on the air strikes.

Speaking to reporters traveling with Kerry from Washington on Wednesday, a senior State Department official said the six powers – the United States, Britain, France, Germany,Russia and China – would not rush to complete a framework agreement with Iran just because there was a March 31 deadline.

But the official said the parties had made progress at last week's inconclusive round of negotiations in Lausanne.

“We very much believe we can get this done by the 31st,” the official said. “We see a path to do that.” The official added, however, that there was no guarantee of success.

Salehi also said a deal was possible but not certain. “It is difficult to forecast whether we can reach a result at this round of talks but we are moving toward reaching a mutual understanding in all technical issues,” he told Iranian state television.

Israel, Saudi Arabia, France and U.S. Congress have all raised concerns that the administration of President Barack Obama might be willing to conclude a deal that would allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapons capability in the future.

The State Department official said: “Any political understanding needs to address in some way all of the elements of a final agreement.”

“We do not know what form this will take … We have always said it needs to have specifics. We will need to communicate as many specifics as possible in some form or fashion (to the public and U.S. Congress).”

Those elements include the different ways to a nuclear weapon, ensuring that it would take Iran at least one year to produce enough high enriched uranium for a single bomb, research and development into advanced centrifuges, transparency measures and monitoring, and sanctions relief for Iran.

FABIUS TO JOIN TALKS

Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, opposes the idea of a two-step process. Iranian officials say they fear a written framework accord would curtail Tehran's negotiating space for the final deal.

Iranian officials have also suggested they could accept some kind of statement or political declaration in Lausanne, as opposed to a formal written agreement.

Officials close to the talks said deep disagreements remained between Tehran and the powers, while divisions had also emerged in recent weeks between the United States andFrance on what to demand of Tehran. U.S. officials say the six are united.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who last week phoned his negotiation team to tell them to keep a tough line in the talks, will join the talks on Saturday. Other ministers may also arrive at then, officials said.

Iran denies Western allegations it is seeking the capability to procure atomic weapons. But Israel, which is believed to have the Middle East's only nuclear arsenal, has previously threatened Iran with military attack.

With the Republican-led U.S. Congress threatening to vote on new sanctions against Iran if there is no agreement this month, the Obama administration is pushing hard to secure a deal. Obama has vowed to veto any new sanctions moves.

Other officials said some kind of memorandum of understanding that would satisfy U.S. needs for Congress and Khamenei's demands was possible by Sunday.

The main obstacle, Western officials say, remains Iran's refusal to compromise on sanctions, research and development and other issues. Salehi disagreed, saying it was the Western powers who need to compromise.

“Iran has demonstrated its political will and it is up to the other side to take a step forward and show that it has the political will to allow a resolution of the problem,” he was quoted as saying on Iran's Press TV website.

Islamist movement Hamas moving closer to Iran


This story originally appeared on themedialine.org.

The Islamist Hamas movement has sharply criticized the Palestinian Authority for resuming peace talks with Israel, saying that President Mahmoud Abbas is giving in to American pressure. The criticism comes as Hamas moves toward a rapprochement with Iran, despite differences over Syria.

“The (Israeli-Palestinian) negotiations will not lead to anything — it’s just wasting time,” Hamas deputy foreign minister Ghazi Hamad told The Media Line. “Israeli is trying to use the talks as an umbrella to continue its aggressive measures against the Palestinian people, especially in the West Bank and Jerusalem.”

Hamad said that in the days prior to the resumption of talks, Israel announced plans to build thousands of homes in areas that Israel captured in 1967.

“It is just a silly game,” Hamad said. “There are talks and negotiations but no outcome and no results. What we see on the ground is just the facts of the occupation: more settlements, more barriers, more checkpoints, more arrests, and more confiscation of land.”

Hamas, which controls the densely populated Gaza Strip, and Fatah, in charge of the West Bank, have been trying to hold “reconciliation talks” for several years to find a way to hold long-overdue Palestinian elections. The two factions signed an agreement in March 2011 that has yet to be completed or implemented to any degree at all. The “reconciliation talks” were supposed to resume the same day that the Israeli — Palestinian negotiations got under way, but were cancelled over the differences of opinion between the two rival camps.

“Reconciliation wasn’t on the horizon anyhow,” Ghassan Khatib, a former Palestinian spokesman and current professor at Bir Zeit University told The Media Line. “The effect on both sides will depend on the future of the talks. If they will show progress, this will empower Fatah and weaken Hamas. If they fail, it will help Hamas and weaken Fatah.”

Khatib said that he, like many Palestinians, is not optimistic that the negotiations will produce a breakthrough. The Israelis and Palestinians remain far apart on many issues, including final borders, Jewish “settlements” and the so-called “right of return” for Palestinians who left what is now Israel in 1948.  

“I’m not optimistic the talks will lead to anything,” Khatib said. “The Americans want them, and the parties cannot afford to say no to the Americans.  But the Americans can’t afford to make them productive,” he said, hinting the US must pressure Israel to make more concessions.

Hamas has been facing a growing financial crisis since Egypt began dismantling Gaza’s “tunnel economy” by sealing scores of underground tunnels through which nearly everything imaginable from weapons to food staples and even vehicles were brought in from the Sinai Peninsula. Hamas, which is considered a terrorist organization by the US and Israel, had also been using the tunnels to bring large sums of money into Gaza. It also levied taxes on goods coming through the subterranean routes. Sealing the tunnels is part of the Egyptian military’s campaign against Jihadists and terrorists in the Sinai.  

Ideologically, Hamas is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood and has always been close to that movement in Egypt. Under former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, Hamas saw its influence in Egypt growing. Last month when Morsi was ousted and the Egyptian army appointed a caretaker government, Hamas lost its ally atop the largest Arab nation, now ruled by those with little love for Hamas.

Tension is also rife in Hamas’ relationship with Iran over the Gaza-based group’s support for Syrian rebels fighting to overthrow President Bashar Al-Assad, a client of the Islamic Republic. While Shi’ite-majorit Iran, and its primary ally, Lebanon-based Hizbullah, have been supporting Assad in the Syrian civil war, Sunni Hamas has supported the Sunni rebels against the Shi’ite Hizbullah, and the Alawite (a break-off from Shi’ism) Assad.

Despite the tension, Hamas and Iran seem to be moving toward rapprochement. Hamas needs the money Iran can offer, as well as its political support.

“We are not jumping from this country to that country according to our mood,” Hamas official Ghazi Hamad said. “We are a Palestinian national movement and we are not in the pocket of any regime. If Iran is willing to support our people, okay. We are not interested in cutting off the relationship with Iran and we think we can overcome this crisis.”

Barak: Israel did not promise not to attack Iran


Israel did not promise the United States that it would abstain from attacking Iran while negotiations are going on, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said.

“We are not committing to anything,” Barak told Israel’s Army Radio during an interview from Bogota, Colombia. He added that Israel’s dialogue on the subject with America is “direct and open.”

Barak said the current negotiations between Iran and six world powers on Iran’s nuclear program taking place in Istanbul, Turkey, need to be “purposeful and results-oriented. They need to clarify if Iran is genuinely willing to stop its military nuclear program or not.

“For this we don’t need months upon months. It requires a few direct meetings where all the demands are put on the table. There you can see if the other side is playing for time, drawing it out through the year, or if indeed the other side is genuinely striving to find a solution.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on April 15 that the decision to continue the talks in five weeks in Baghdad amounts to a “freebie” for Iran, allowing them to continue to enrich uranium “without any limitation, any inhibition.”

Barak, who is on a five-day visit to Colombia and the United States, said that Israel believes the talks “will probably not have an impact or bring the Iranians to cease their nuclear program.”

“Of course we will be happy to be proven wrong,” he added.

Barak said, “The world must find a way of preventing this; not for Israel, but for the stability and peace of the world.”

Iran says its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes; the West fears that Iran may be enriching uranium in order to produce a nuclear bomb.

Netanyahu has called on the international community to halt Iran’s nuclear production by force if necessary, and has warned that the window in which to prevent Iran’s production of a nuclear bomb is rapidly closing.

Obama responded to Netanyahu’s “freebie” accusation on April 15, saying, “The notion that somehow we’ve given something away or a ‘freebie’ would indicate Iran has gotten something. In fact, they’ve got some of the toughest sanctions that they’re going to be facing coming up in just a few months if they don’t take advantage of these talks.”

Barak was scheduled to meet with his U.S. counterpart, Leon Panetta, on April 19 in Washington.

Israel cautiously welcomes big-power talks with Iran


Israel on Wednesday cautiously welcomed the planned resumption of big-power nuclear talks with Iran, insisting that Tehran be denied the means to turn uranium into bomb fuel.

With Israel speaking increasingly loudly of resorting to military action to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons, the talks could provide some respite in a crisis that has driven up oil prices and threatened to suck the United States into its third major war in a decade.

Tuesday’s announcement of new talks followed a visit by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the United States, where President Barack Obama said the talks offered a diplomatic chance to quiet the “drums of war.”

“I’m very happy that they are opening discussions,” said Netanyahu’s national security adviser, Yaakov Amidror.

“There will be no one happier than us, and the prime minister said this in his own voice, if it emerges that in these talks Iran will give up on its military nuclear capability,” he told Israel Radio.

Taking up Iran’s offer of talks with the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said the powers sought assurances on “the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program, while respecting Iran’s right to the peaceful use of nuclear energy.”

A date and venue for the talks have yet to be agreed.

Past contacts with Tehran, whose often secretive nuclear projects have stirred foreign suspicions of a hidden bomb program, stumbled in disputes over the scale of its uranium enrichment and stockpiling of the fissile material, which can power energy reactors and, if purified further, provide fuel for warheads.

Ahead of his White House meeting with Obama on Monday, Netanyahu demanded Iran’s enrichment stop and its uranium with a higher than 3.5 percent purity, the level used for electricity generation, be removed.

Speaking separately to Israel’s Army Radio, Netanyahu’s cabinet secretary, Zvi Hauser, said those terms held.

Uranium bomb fuel must be enriched to 90 percent. Iran has significantly shortened any such leap in the future by enriching some of its uranium to 20 percent, saying this concentration was required to produce medical isotopes.

Netanyahu has also said Iran must dismantle an underground enrichment facility near the city of Qom, which experts say is designed to survive any air strikes, part of what Israel calls a “zone of immunity” being sought by Tehran.

Israel, widely believed to be the region’s only nuclear power, has threatened to attack Iran’s nuclear sites if they deem diplomacy at a dead end.

While not ruling out a U.S. military option, Obama has urged Israel not to hasten to war, saying Washington’s interests were also at stake.

Iran’s approach to the six world powers for talks comes as it suffers unprecedented economic pain from expanding oil and financial sanctions.

“It should be clear that without a real military alternative, the Iranians will not relent in the negotiations. And without there being a serious alternative, they will not enter the negotiations, and in any event there has to be readiness for the negotiations failing,” Amidror said.

Netanyahu’s spokesman Liran Dan said there had been no U.S. effort to veto or endorse any military action by Israel on Iran.

“A red light was not given. And if we’re already talking about colors, then a green light was not given either,” he said in remarks to both radio stations. “If there are red lines being discussed, they are not between us and the Americans, but rather, between the international community and Iran.”

Editing by Janet Lawrence

Why Obama is better than McCain for Israel


I wouldn’t gamble with Israel’s future. Why would you?

Most arguments in favor of Sen. John McCain and his approach to Israel rest on his greater experience and knowledge. Yet, put simply, McCain is a gambler — in practice, in personality and in judgment.

No supporter of Israel should want Israel’s future placed in the hands of an unpredictable and temperamental gambler, whose actions and phrases cannot be anticipated. And why would a supporter of Israel want to place the Jewish state’s future in the hands of an inexperienced, ideological, unpredictable, unknowledgeable and barely known President Sarah Palin in the event of a tragedy that would elevate her to the presidency?

With a reputation for fiery verbal outbursts against associates at home and abroad, McCain’s fundamental approach to policy-making is based on snap decisions and quick, emotional judgments. Some examples include picking Palin in the first place, rushing back to Washington to “help” in the bailout and flip-flopping on regulation, Bush and his tax policy.

While both candidates have strong records backing Israel, there are differences. McCain benefits from having been in public life longer than Sen. Barack Obama, but his global policies are more likely to harm the Jewish state. He stresses a belligerent confrontationalism even more stark than President Bush’s, seemingly closer to Palin’s.

When McCain doesn’t approve of another country’s policies, he sees its government as an actual or potential foe, as in the case of Russia or even apparently NATO member Spain. He follows in the Bush tradition of unilateralism and an America going its own way.

He celebrates Iraq as central to the war on terror, which differs radically from the views of most of our allies. His policy on Iran is similar to the failed approach of Bush — talk loudly but without a clear policy, only drifting. Regarding Russia, McCain has been clear in his determined opposition to the Putin regime, but Israeli leaders are asking for U.S. consultations with Moscow over Iran. How can McCain’s Cold War-style Moscow policy possibly produce that kind of dialogue?

Take a look at Israel’s security today and compare it to eight years ago. Is Israel better off now than when Bush assumed office in 2001?

Eight years ago, Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas and Syria were all weaker, and the Palestinians were less divided, more stable and more capable of dialogue with Israel. As well, Jordan, critical to Israel’s security, is now threatened from within and without.

Although Bush has been seemingly friendly in his attitude toward Israel, his policies, or lack thereof, have consistently eroded Israel’s defensive strength. If McCain continues to pursue these same policies that have already failed, as he claims to be prepared to do, then the situation Israel confronts will only deteriorate further.

In the Middle East — on Iraq, on Iran and on Arab-Israeli relations — McCain offers more of the same policy that has led to Bush’s repeated failures in the region. Indeed, in recent months even Bush has come close to accepting Obama’s policies on an Iraq timetable, on promoting Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, on Pakistan and Afghanistan and even on the idea of possibly talking to Iran. Lately, it seems McCain is often more Bush than Bush.

Israel’s security would be enhanced with a fresh post-Sept. 11 approach by a new leader with a better pro-Israel perspective. It is not words but actions that will make the difference for Israel.

The policy framework Obama offers has a much better likelihood of producing positive results than McCain’s. For example, on Iran, Obama would talk to lower-level officials and increase dialogue as Iran demonstrates its seriousness to make concessions. On the contrary, McCain is opposed to dealing directly with leaders in Tehran until they stop enriching uranium — the classic, unproductive Bush policy.

Both campaigns, particularly Obama’s, have been vociferous in advocating intensified sanctions against Iran and maintaining the military option on the table.

Obama envisions a regional policy that takes into account America’s competing challenges, first and foremost with the complexities of the Iraq-Afghanistan-Iran-Pakistan quadrangle, yet also addresses simultaneously Israel and its neighbors, Syria, the Palestinian Territories, Hamas and Hezbollah. (It is worth noting that Obama has consistently said he will explore talking to rogue regimes like Iran and Syria but not to nongovernmental threats like Hamas and Hezbollah). Of course in the tough Mideast, Obama’s policy may not completely succeed, but we already know that McCain’s will definitely fail.

America’s financial crisis also strengthens the argument for Obama. As the stark events of late September have made only too clear, it is the Democrat, with a fresh, experienced and savvy team, who is far more likely to reverse the U.S. economic meltdown.

For an Israel integrally tied to America and its fortunes, a continued U.S. economic decline will only affect its military security and economic standing adversely and dangerously. The candidate who can better fix the economy must be seen as a stronger advocate of Israel than his opponent, no matter how long the latter has made friendly statements toward the Jewish state.

McCain has admitted that he sometimes makes quick and unexpected decisions and then has to live with the consequences. But one wonders why any American should want to live with these kinds of outcomes, but more importantly, why should any supporter of an embattled Israel want to risk the future of the Jewish State on a president known for the temperamental, quixotic and unpredictable whims that guide his decision making?

The Jewish state would be far better off for the next four years with the cool, careful, considered decisions of a strong supporter — Obama.

Steven L. Spiegel is Director of the Center for Middle East Development and a professor of political science at UCLA.

Can Olmert’s goodwill gestures kick-start peace?


After the plethora of goodwill gestures Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert made in his meeting Saturday with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, politicians and pundits on both sides are asking one question: Will it be enough to kick-start the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process?

Leaders on both sides are optimistic. They see Olmert’s moves as part of a new and wider American plan for Israeli-Palestinian accommodation.

Pundits, however, are downbeat. Few believe Abbas will be able to create the necessary conditions on the Palestinian side for successful negotiations with Israel.

The meeting was the first between the two leaders since Olmert’s election victory last March. Its primary purpose was to help strengthen Abbas and his relatively moderate Fatah movement in their ongoing power struggle with the radical Hamas.

Olmert’s moves were part of a two-pronged plan: To show the Palestinian people that more can be achieved through Abbas-style dialogue with Israel than armed confrontation, and to strengthen Fatah militarily by allowing it the wherewithal to build up its armed forces ahead of a possible showdown with Hamas over approaches to Israel.

With this in mind, Olmert made the following goodwill gestures:

  • Israel would release $100 million in frozen Palestinian tax money.
  • It would remove dozens of checkpoints to facilitate Palestinian movement in the West Bank.
  • It would ease passage in and out of Gaza to enable the free flow of goods and medicines.
  • It would consider freeing a few dozen Palestinian prisoners in early January to mark Id el-Adha, the Muslim feast of the sacrifice, ahead of the release of Cpl. Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier held by Hamas-affiliated terrorists.
  • It would agree to set up joint committees to consider further prisoner releases and the removal of key Fatah operatives from Israel’s wanted list.
  • It would allow Egypt to supply Fatah with 1,900 Kalashnikov rifles.
  • It would allow the Palestinian Badr Brigade, currently stationed in Jordan, to redeploy in Gaza.

Olmert went out of his way to show friendship and respect for Abbas and his presidency, waiting for Abbas outside the prime minister’s residence and embracing him warmly on arrival.

Olmert also made a major symbolic gesture: For the first time, Palestinian flags were flown in an official Israeli state building.

“Abu Mazen is an adversary — he is a not an easy adversary, but with an adversary like this, there is, perhaps, a chance of dialogue that will bring an accord between us and the Palestinians,” Olmert said in a speech Sunday, his first public comments following the two hours of talks with Abbas.

Senior Abbas aide Saeb Erekat also was cautiously optimistic.

“It would be a mistake to think that all the problems could be solved in one meeting, but the meeting improved the feeling on both sides,” he said.

Writing in the mass-circulation daily, Yediot Achronot, political analyst Itamar Eichner summed up the new friendship between Olmert and Abbas.

“They have a common interest not to mention a common enemy: to block the rise of Hamas, which enjoys massive support from Iran,” he wrote.

The Israeli moves complement U.S. and European efforts to strengthen Fatah.

The Americans are soon expected to release about $100 million to Abbas, and they also have been training Fatah forces.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, in a mid-December visit to Ramallah, outlined economic projects from which the Palestinians could benefit if they reached accommodation with Israel.

All of these moves are part of a wider plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace talks that has begun to take shape in the U.S. State Department. The new American thinking envisages leapfrogging stage one of the internationally approved “road map” for Israeli-Palestinian peace and moving directly to stage two, which calls for the establishment of an interim Palestinian state with provisional borders.

Discarding stage one means that talks could go ahead without the Palestinians first stopping all violence and without Israel dismantling West Bank outposts.

The idea is that once a ministate is established, those things would be much easier for the parties to handle.

By strengthening Abbas, the Americans hope to create conditions for the establishment of a new Palestinian government that would recognize Israel and become a serious negotiating partner. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is expected to make a visit to the region soon to press the plan.

The American approach is not much different from ideas being bandied about in the Israeli Foreign Ministry and supported by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.

Livni, who favors going directly for an interim Palestinian state, told a meeting of Europe-based Israeli ambassadors in Jerusalem on Sunday that the Olmert-Abbas meeting was important not as “a lone gesture, but as a process of which gestures are a part.” She added that in her view, moderate Arab and Muslim states should be involved, as well.

On the Palestinian side, Abbas also expressed the hope that the meeting would lead to peace talks.

Israeli pundits, however, are skeptical. They doubt Abbas will be able to carry off the necessary first step: the establishment of a Palestinian government that makes the right noises about recognizing Israel, accepting previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements and renouncing violence.

“First that must happen, but as we know from experience, something on the way is bound to go wrong, and all we’ll get is more of the same,” political analyst Ben Caspit wrote in the Ma’ariv daily.

“Many meetings between Palestinian and Israeli leaders have taken place up till now, but it seems that never have two such weak partners sat on either side of the table — Abu Mazen on the verge of a civil war and Olmert after a war and embroiled in an investigation,” Caspit wrote.

“They have a great many qualities in common: not a bad vision and considerable courage. On the other hand they are lacking in leadership and confidence, exhausted and shackled by political constraints, enemies inside and out.”

The trouble is, Palestinian society is deeply divided over how to proceed.

In Abbas’ view, the Palestinians will always be outgunned and therefore will lose in any violent confrontation with Israel. Thus, negotiation is the way forward.

Hamas holds that time is on the Palestinians’ side, and the best path is to establish a temporary truce, use it to stockpile weapons and wait for Iran to become the dominant regional power.

Israeli intelligence estimates that if Abbas is able to rekindle a peace process, Hamas will escalate its violence against Israel in a bid to extinguish it.

Complicating matters even further, the fight on the Palestinian streets is not only between Fatah and Hamas. Poverty and the breakdown of law and order have spawned violent, armed gangs loyal only to themselves and contemptuous of authority, whether from Fatah or Hamas. They will probably continue to use terror against Israel, even if Abbas and Hamas agree to a cease-fire.

If the latest American initiative is to succeed, it will have to find a way of neutralizing both Hamas and the street gangs. Otherwise, new peace prospects will drown in a sea of Palestinian chaos.

Making peace at the best of times would not be easy. In these circumstances, it will be a very tall order indeed.

Leslie Susser is diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem report.
JTA correspondent Dan Baron in Jerusalem contributed to this report.