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Israel will mark its 60th Independence
Israel will mark its 60th Independence Day on May 14, and Palestinians, 60 years of national tragedy. Neither knows if peace is possible.

Indeed, can an Arab and a Jewish state coexist peacefully?

The situation has changed in the past 60 years. Israel has survived attacks by external enemies and internal problems, and today only diehard fanatics question or deny Israel's right to be a state. Some Arab countries have officially recognized Israel and signed peace agreements with it, while others are waiting for an opportune moment to do so.

Nobody now demands "all or nothing" in the Middle East. Israel is prepared to recognize a Palestinian state and make peace with Syria, if the price is right.

"We dream of peace, but not at the cost of capitulation or diktat," President Shimon Peres said before Independence Day.

But Israelis will see withdrawal from the occupied territories as capitulation, in particular considering the bloody developments in the Gaza Strip. They want security guarantees, which the National Palestinian Authority, hobbled by internal problems, cannot give.

This makes peace an impossible dream. Israelis do not want peace at the cost of new wars and human losses; they prefer security. But security is impossible without peace.

In the 60 years since the establishment of Israel, more than 16,500 Israelis have died fighting and over 1,500 in terrorist attacks. In the past year alone, 65 servicemen and about 20 civilians were killed. No wonder that Peres said on the Memorial Day for Israel's Fallen Soldiers and Victims of Terrorism before Independence Day that Israel is a house built on a sea of tears.

More people are dying, and young Israelis wonder when peace will come, if at all. Palestinians, who have lost tens of thousands, ask the same question.

U.S. President George W. Bush is to visit the region next week for the official celebrations of Israel's independence. He will most likely speak about progress at the peace talks.

In November 2007, Bush promised that a peace agreement would be forged while he occupies the White House. There are barely eight months left until the end of his term, and so the U.S. president must announce progress at the talks.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited the region a week before Bush. She held talks with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and PNA President Mahmoud Abbas. Rice said after her meeting with Abbas that the peace talks could be concluded, while the Palestinian leader said 90% of the road had been covered.

The Israeli media reported progress at the talks after the Palestinian-Israeli meeting held the next day after Rice's visit. It was chaired by Olmert and Abbas and attended by working groups drafting peace terms.

Mark Regev, spokesman for the Israeli prime minister, said the talks were "the most serious ever held with Palestinians."

But can we believe these statements if some time before that Abbas said the sides had not added a single letter to the draft treaty in the past six months?

Palestinian sources are speaking increasingly often about Abbas's resignation if the talks fail. The PNA leader has not said anything on this score, and so this could be a kind of blackmail designed to pressure Israel and the United States into accelerating the talks and showing more flexibility. If Abbas resigns, there will be nobody to hold peace talks with, at least in the near future.

Is a compromise between the sides possible? Or will the remaining 10% of the road prove impassable?

According to the Israeli daily Haaretz, Israelis are prepared to cede 90% of the occupied West Bank, but Palestinians want 98%. Officially, both sides deny the reliability of the figures and plans provided by "confidential sources."

Jerusalem is the biggest apple of discord. Palestinians do not want to stop calling East Jerusalem (Al Quds) their capital, but agreeing to divide the Holy City would be political suicide for the Israeli prime minister.

Olmert's future is gloomy as it is. His government coalition consists of 64 deputies, the minimum being 61. The collapse of the Israeli government and new elections are a distinct possibility, especially since a criminal case has been opened against Olmert. The essence of the case is being kept secret from the public by a court decision, aiming to prevent unnecessary excitement before independence celebrations and Bush's visit.

However, many experts are hinting at corruption charges because such cases often involve top Israeli officials, and the closer a politician moves toward a peaceful settlement, the more problems he has with law. Many of them remain in power by making compromises with their colleagues. This means that Olmert will have to reject the idea of dividing Jerusalem if he wants to keep the religious Shas party in his coalition.

Even if Olmert disregards the threats, he will still need the agreements he signs with Palestinians to be ratified by parliament and possibly at a national referendum, or in the elections designed to reaffirm the legitimacy of Olmert's actions at the peace talks. But can he win such elections?

Mahmoud Abbas will have to undergo a similar procedure, which is why he has proposed holding parliamentary and presidential elections in Palestine. But the Hamas movement, which seized power in Gaza in the summer of 2006, has rejected the idea, and elections cannot be organized without its agreement.

Abbas and Olmert will have to overcome many obstacles, above all internal ones, on their way to peace. Will they succeed, or will peace be postponed in the region for another 60 years?

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.


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