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World News

Peace process may be derailed by Israeli election

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - An early Israeli election may kill off more than George W. Bush’s hopes of a peace deal with Palestinians this year. It could bring a right-wing government hostile to peacemaking by his successor in the White House.

Israel's Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni (R) meets President Shimon Peres in Jerusalem October 26, 2008, in this picture released by the Israeli Government Press Office (GPO). . REUTERS/Amos Ben Gershom/Handout/GPO

The failure of Foreign minister Tzipi Livni, new leader of the ruling party, to form a new government, starting the countdown to a likely election in February, will further sideline peace talks that the U.S. president hoped would bolster a legacy burdened by the war in Iraq.

Diplomats and analysts said the election could have implications far beyond Bush’s term, citing opinion polls showing a lead for the right-wing opposition Likud party of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has criticized many of the peace proposals that Livni and outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert have made with U.S. encouragement.

“We’re deeply worried,” said one senior Western diplomat in Jerusalem, speaking anonymously because he did not want to be seen interfering in Israeli politics. “This may spell the end of the diplomatic process, and not just in the near term.”

A senior aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said an early Israeli election would put the peace process “on hold for half a year, at least.”

Although there have been few outward signs of progress since Bush helped relaunch the talks nearly a year ago at a peace conference in Annapolis, Maryland, Olmert and Livni plan to press ahead with the process through election day and beyond if their centrist Kadima party wins, officials said.

Both leading U.S. presidential candidates have voiced support for the talks, although Palestinians and many Israelis see Democratic nominee Barack Obama as more likely than Republican John McCain to press Israel to make concessions.

PROTECTED, SAFEGUARDED

“There is a consensus that the Annapolis process should continue,” said Ramiro Cibrian-Uzal, the European Union envoy to Israel.

“Whatever achievements have been made, it is very important that they are protected, safeguarded and handed over.”

Gilead Sher, an Israeli negotiator with the Palestinians from 1999 to 2001, dismissed conventional wisdom that a lame-duck administration such as Olmert’s could not make a deal.

“We might be living in the final couple of years when a two-state solution will be possible. We don’t have the luxury of letting the status quo prevail,” he said.

Instead of pulling back, Sher said Olmert and Livni, in the three months or so that remain to them as caretaker leaders, should “identify the major issues in which a basic understanding might be reached within the foreseeable period of time and work for attaining that 24/7.”

Gidi Grinstein, head of the Reut Institute think-tank, said a partial deal to give Olmert a peacemaking “legacy” was still possible: “No one can stop him from doing that.”

But doing so could invite a political backlash against Kadima in a race against Netanyahu and alienate potentially critical coalition partners on the political right, said Raanan Gissin, a long-time adviser to former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who quit Likud to found Kadima in 2005.

“You can continue managing the negotiations. You can continue meeting and talking. But when you are in the twilight zone of new elections, you don’t make major decisions,” he said.

BREAKTHROUGH UNLIKELY

Seeking to head off a pre-election push for a peace deal, Gideon Saar, a senior Likud legislator, told Israel Radio he would bring forward legislation to bar Olmert from negotiating or signing agreements that included territorial concessions.

It was unclear how much support such a bill would receive.

Olmert has supported an Israeli withdrawal from most of the occupied West Bank, including Arab East Jerusalem, where Palestinians want the capital of a future state.

On Sunday, Livni trod more carefully, saying she supported a “united Jerusalem” as the capital of Israel but did not rule out negotiations with the Palestinians about the city’s future.

Netanyahu is using the slogan: “Likud will keep Jerusalem.”

Shlomo Ben-Ami, Israel’s Labor foreign minister when the previous round of peace talks collapsed in 2001, said he saw little chance of a breakthrough with the Palestinians, either now or under a future government.

Despite Netanyahu’s public criticism of Olmert’s negotiations, Ben-Ami pointed to signs the Likud leader was courting more centrist figures “in a way that might convey the message that there is room for political maneuvering.”

The real problem, Ben-Ami said, was Israel’s fragmented party system, which gives small, special-interest groups in parliament the power to make or break governments.

Barring strong U.S. pressure on the parties to make more far-reaching concessions, Ben-Ami concluded: “The Israeli political system is utterly incapable of reaching a settlement with the Palestinians.”

Additional reporting by Wafa Amr in Ramallah and Joseph Nasr in Jerusalem, Editing by Alastair Macdonald and Andrew Dobbie

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