Scepticism, anger on both sides of West Asian conflict

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JERUSALEM, Oct 21 (Reuters) Israeli cable technician Elram Weitzman thinks the Palestinians deserve a state of their own. But he doesn't spend too much time thinking about it.

''They should have their own country -- as long as it's not ours,'' said the 22-year-old from Jerusalem between drags on a cigarette. ''To be honest I don't really watch the news.'' Weitzman's views are echoed across Israel, where questions about a US-sponsored West Asian peace drive aimed at pushing Israelis and Palestinians closer to a deal on Palestinian statehood are generally met with apathy and scepticism.

On the other side of the seemingly intractable conflict, the mood in the West Bank and Gaza swings between despair and hatred, with the occasional whiff of optimism.

''Rice is the envoy of the devil,'' said 20-year-old student Shihab Abdallah in Gaza, shortly after a visit to the region by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. ''She can only bring evil to wherever she goes.'' Rice ended her latest bout of shuttle diplomacy by saying a US-sponsored West Asian conference expected to be held in November or December had a ''reasonable chance of success''.

Ordinary Israelis and Palestinians are not so sure. A poll of 580 Israelis this month by Israel's Peace Index Project showed 62 per cent of the Jewish public think peace with the Palestinians is a top priority for the Jewish state.

But less than 40 per cent believes the conference in Annapolis, outside Washington, will advance chances for peace, and only one in five Jewish Israelis is closely following preparations for the summit.

''I don't see a diplomatic solution on the horizon. It's like a tug of war, back and forth, a little this way, a little that way,'' said Nir Vardy, a 30-year-old salesman in Israel's secular metropolis of Tel Aviv. ''Nothing will come out of Annapolis.'' ''RICE COMES RICE GOES'' Many Palestinians also voice scepticism, arguing the three architects of any deal -- Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and U.S. President George W Bush -- lack political muscle.

''Rice comes, Rice goes, nothing happens,'' said Ashraf Methqal, a pharmacist in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

Abbas and Olmert hope to present a joint document at the conference that will address key issues like borders and the future of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees. The document is expected to serve as a basis for formal statehood negotiations that would be launched following the gathering.

Some Palestinians doubt Israel's commitment to peace given continued violence in the West Bank. Hundreds of Palestinians marched through the flashpoint city of Nablus shouting ''revenge'' and firing rifles in the air after Israeli troops killed two men during a raid last week.

Many are more concerned about factional infighting four months after Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip, prompting Abbas's Fatah group to cement its hold on the West Bank.

''A state? It is farther than a dream now,'' said Mohammed Yaccoub, an unemployed Gazan. ''Going to the conference as divided as we are today has one meaning: surrender.'' One young Palestinian woman in Nablus was hopeful her people would secure independence. ''I think we will get a state,'' said 23-year-old Rasha Sarrawi.

But even if Israel's leaders agree to an independent Palestine, the Jewish settlers who believe they have a divine right to the West Bank and have built homes there in contravention of international law, won't go without a fight.

''If you are a believing Jew then you believe all the land of Israel belongs to you,'' said Sharon Katz atop a West Bank hill she climbed as part of a protest by right-wing activists. ''I don't think I could compromise on the land of Israel.'' REUTERS SKB PM1515

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