Palestinians optimistic over Bush, Israelis split

JERUSALEM, Jan 18 (AFP) - The Palestinians are hoping for a better deal from the Middle East peace process with new US President George W. Bush in the chair, while the Israelis are split over what he might do for them.

"We do not expect to see a magic wand," Palestinian parliament member Hanan Ashrawi told AFP. "It's not that we look at Bush as a saviour."

But Ashrawi, who described the Clinton years as an "abysmal failure" as far as the peace process was concerned, said the Palestinians were counting on Bush to make a total reassessment of the situation.

"We are willing to work with the Bush administration in order to carry out this assessment," she added as the Palestinian uprising continued and talks stumbled on.

Ashrawi accused the Clinton administration of displaying "blatant bias" towards the Israelis since the Olso accords of 1993 which laid the basis for the present floundering peace process.

Even so, a peace framework laid down by Clinton at the end of last year is still at the heart of ongoing negotiations between the two sides, though both have expressed strong reservations over the unprecedented compromises it demands over land, sovereignty and the fate of refugees.

"I don't think they can completely erase the blackboard and go back to point zero," Ashrawi said of the incoming Bush team. "What they have to do is enhance the positive aspects and try to neutralise the negative or the potentially disruptive aspects" of the Clinton plan.

For once many Israelis agree with the Palestinians that Clinton was a good thing for the Jewish state, and especially for outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who is also set to depart the political scene in elections next month he is tipped to lose to right-wing opposition leader Ariel Sharon.

"The people of the State of Israel have never had such a loyal friend in the White House and it is doubtful if they ever will again," Hemi Shalev, columnist for the Hebrew daily Maariv, commented Wednesday.

Barak has been pressing hard to obtain some sort of result out of the Clinton plan before the February 6 polls, if only a vague declaration of intent signed by both sides.

On the Israeli right, however, the feeling is that anything is better than the Clinton plan, which proposes giving the Palestinians 95 percent of the West Bank and the Arab quarters of east Jerusalem, as well as shared sovereignty over disputed holy sites.

Clinton's name was booed at a huge right-wing demonstration on January 8 against any change to Jerusalem's current status, totally under Israeli rule.

The Israeli daily Haaretz said Thursday that Sharon, while conceding the Palestinians' right to a state, would give them only 42 percent of the West Bank, no more than they have now.

"It's a pity that Clinton, who was such a great friend of Israel during his eight years in office, is the first president of the United States to suggest dividing Jerusalem," the city's right-wing mayor Ehud Olmert told last week's rally.

Sharon's aides are hoping that Bush, who has pledged to transfer the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, will throw the Clinton plan in the bin.

"I think that (...) the new administration hopefully will not rush headlong in continuing where Mr. Clinton left off, but reassess the whole process," Zalman Shoval, Sharon's foreign policy adviser, said.

Whatever the result, both Israelis and Palestinians seem to agree that this reassessment will take some time.

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