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Far Right in Israel Sabotages Obama's Two-State Solution, But Possible Prisoner Release Offers Hope (Maybe)

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The news that right-wing parties are forming a coalition likely dooms the prospects for Mideast peace any time soon, complete with a continuation of building and expanding of disputed settlements on the West Bank. As Daily Beast International Editor Salameh Nematt warned in January, and Reuters reports today:

Far-right leader Avigdor Lieberman would become Israel's foreign minister if an outline coalition pact with Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu goes into effect, a spokeswoman for Lieberman said on Monday.

Netanyahu's deal with the Yisrael Beitenu Party, initialed by the parties late on Sunday, was his first step to forging a right-wing government that could be on a collision course with the Obama administration's goals of seeking a Palestinian state.

This move, in turn, helped undercut any unity talks between the elected extremist Hamas party now dominant in the Palestinian government and Fatah, the relatively more open-to-negotiation faction:

Hamas officials said over the weekend that the Egyptian-sponsored reconciliation talks with Fatah have failed to produce agreement over the establishment of a Palestinian "unity government." Salah Bardaweel, a Hamas negotiator and legislator, held Fatah responsible for the failure.

He said that Fatah's demand that the new government abide by all previous agreements that were signed between Israel and the Palestinians was the main reason behind the collapse of the talks...

Bardaweel said that the Hamas negotiators were surprised when their Fatah counterparts told them that there would be no "unity government" unless it accepted the Oslo Accords and recognized Israel's right to exist.

"This is their way of foiling the talks," he charged. "They set impossible conditions."

Recognizing Israel's right to exist is apparently an insurmountable obstacle for Hamas. Similarly, scaling back on the Israeli settlements or recognizing the rights of Palestinians for self-determination are equally anathema to the right-wingers in charge of Israel now.

Mideast analyst and journalist, Salameh Nematt, the International Editor of the Daily Beast, predicted these pitfalls last year in a column on Hillary Clinton's challenges, her "Gaza problem," and more recently as a guest on the Web radio show I co-host. Strikingly, in mid-January, besides outlining all the complications arising from the attacks on Gaza, he pointed to a possible way out to achieve unity among Palestinians: back-channel talks that were then starting to seek the release of a controversial Palestinian activist, Marwan Barghouti, now in Israeli prison for four life sentences for his role in the Intifada.

(Earlier this week, though, Israel said stubborness by Hamas over prisoners had led to an impasse, making the release of Barghouti and numerous other Palestinian prisoners in exchange for an Israeli soldier less likely.)

Bargouti's admirers call him the "Palestinian Mandela," and while many in Israel view him as just a terrorist, he'd have the potential to form a unity government willing to negotiate with Israel. As the Toronto Star reported last week :

RAMALLAH, West Bank - The man most Palestinians would choose as their new leader -- if they could -- is a gifted grassroots politician, fluent in three languages, who's currently behind bars.

But Marwan Barghouti could experience a swift change of address if a pending deal goes ahead to release hundreds of Palestinians from Israeli-run jails in exchange for an Israeli soldier taken hostage by armed militants from the Gaza Strip nearly three years ago.

The swap might take place within the next few weeks and could have a profound impact on the future of Middle Eastern politics if it entails freedom for the man some refer to as the Nelson Mandela of Palestine.

"The negotiations are more secretive than before," a Barghouti advocate, Sa'd Nimr, told the Star in an interview yesterday. "I hope this is a positive sign."

Director of the Palestinian campaign to free Barghouti, Nimr has been following every twist and turn of ongoing, indirect negotiations in Cairo aimed at securing the release of Sgt. Gilad Schalit, 22, an Israeli soldier being held captive in the Gaza Strip.

Freedom for the Israeli soldier would almost certainly entail liberation for Barghouti, who speaks Arabic, English and Hebrew and is seen as a champion of honest and democratic rule in a society that has known few truly honest or democratic rulers.

As revered among Palestinians as he is reviled by many Israelis, Barghouti remains popular despite having spent the past seven years in prison, following his arrest in 2002. Two years later, an Israeli court convicted him of having masterminded the deaths of five civilians.

But even Barghouti's release can't end the Israeli-Palestinian logjam if the Israeli right wingers now headed to power still hold fast to their hard-line views. And the biggest stumbling block, Nematt and other experts point out, is the Israeli building of settlements, a violation of international law and a UN Security Council resolution. 60 Minutes had a powerful exploration recently of the impact these settlements have on Palestinians and the Mideast peace process. Without U.S. pressure on Israel to end the building of settlements, there's not likely to be much progress on peace, no matter how talented Special Envoy George Mitchell may be. "You [Israel] can't negotiate over the settlements while you're still building the settlements," Nematt says.

Here's how it plays out in the territories now. Keep these settlements in mind as the crisis in the Mideast no doubt worsens in the next few months: