IMAGE: Palestinian man reacts to brother's death
Mohammed Salem  /  Reuters
A Palestinian man reacts after learning that his brother was killed by Israeli forces in the northern Gaza Strip on Saturday.
updated 3/1/2008 6:03:31 PM ET 2008-03-01T23:03:31

Even if fledgling Israel-Palestinian peace talks survive the latest round of bloodletting in Gaza, the violence underscores a growing sense that time is running out for Israel and moderate Palestinians to forge a deal.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's visit to the region this week will be less about moving the peace process forward than saving it from collapse.

Four days of intense fighting between Israel and Hamas-ruled Gaza has killed scores of Palestinians and several Israelis, and brought militant rocket barrages closer to the heartland of Israel.

It has also torpedoed any goodwill emerging from the peace talks. Leaders of the moderate Palestinian government based in the West Bank on Saturday threatened to suspend the negotiations.

If Hamas provokes Israel into a ground invasion of Gaza — which appears increasingly likely — more casualty tolls like week's would make it all but impossible for moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to be seen talking to Israel.

Hopes weren't high when the talks were formally launched in November at a peace conference hosted by President Bush in Annapolis, Maryland, following seven years of Israeli-Palestinian bloodshed.

Yet before the latest outburst of Gaza violence, some surprising bright spots had emerged in the talks: Both sides were reporting good chemistry among the main players, negotiators had been getting together almost every day and putting aside their old habit of turning talks into gripe sessions.

But after Saturday's bloodshed in Gaza, Abbas and his chief negotiator, Ahmed Qureia, used words like "genocide," "massacre," and "international terrorism" to describe Israel's actions.

Israel said it had no choice but to act decisively to protect some 200,000 of its citizens now living within range of Hamas rockets.

The peace talks faced enormous obstacles even before the latest violence.

Palestinian leaders complained of slow progress and provocative Israeli actions: construction on disputed land, refusal to ease restrictions on Palestinian movement in the West Bank and a recent decision to prolong the closure of key Palestinian institutions in east Jerusalem.

Is peace a realistic goal?
Israelis said the Palestinians had a long way to go before achieving the security competence necessary for any Israeli pullback from the West Bank.

Add to all this the fragility of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's governing coalition, which is in danger of falling with any peace concession, and both sides began questioning whether Bush's stated goal of reaching a peace treaty this year was realistic.

If the peace talks don't bear fruit soon, however, the escalating violence in Gaza will almost certainly undermine efforts to bolster moderates and isolate Hamas — intensifying the hostility between Israelis and Palestinians and perhaps dealing the peace camp a fatal blow.

Before the latest violence, participants had reported a friendly atmosphere not seen since the most promising days of peacemaking between slain Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Abbas at one point referred to Olmert with an Arab honorific, "Abu Shaul," or "Father of Shaul," his first-born son. Olmert recently held an umbrella for Abbas in the rain.

The two leaders had been meeting every two weeks, greeting each other with an embrace, eating lunch together, swapping jokes. The last 15 minutes of each 90-minute encounter had been spent without aides, exchanging frank thoughts in English.

By all accounts, each had sought to allay the other's deepest suspicions — such as Abbas' assurances to Olmert that he need not worry about millions of Palestinian refugees flooding Israel. The talks were businesslike, focusing on a framework for Palestinian statehood, participants on both sides said.

Honoring agreements
The two sides have largely honored their agreement not to divulge details of the negotiations, aware that doing so would likely thwart progress by stirring up opposition.

Still, it's clear to all that no treaty is likely to be implemented while Hamas clings to power in Gaza, exchanging blows with Israel.

In recent weeks, the Jewish state has come under increasing pressure, especially from Europe, to ease its blockade of Gaza and open the territory's shuttered borders because of the humanitarian hardships the policy is causing ordinary Gazans.

With this week's fighting, it appears unlikely Israel would consider easing the blockade — a reality that could embolden extremists and increase hatred for Western-backed peacemakers.

Assuming that peace talks survive, the prevailing hope is that progress in negotiations will tip the balance away from Hamas and in favor of the moderates.

Yet in the blood-soaked regions of Gaza and southern Israel, peace today seems as distant as ever.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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