Mideast peace momentum

Action: Opening highway, closing rogue settlements, seizing guns help difficult talks.

October 12, 1999

SUNDAY, when the highway through Israel opens to link Gaza and the West Bank, Palestinians will gain tangible results long promised by the peace process.

There's another in store, too: An Israeli Cabinet committee authorized Prime Minister Ehud Barak to dismantle any of 42 rogue Israeli settlements planted without legal authority in the West Bank. This is a token of what must come.

On the other side, the Palestinian Authority has timidly begun to crack down on the illegal weapons trade in the West Bank. This was long promised but not done.

What provoked it was a vendetta between refugees from Balata camp and Nablus townsfolk. The gun trade boosted by extremists to fight Israel is now seen as a menace to civil order among Palestinians.

None of these gestures concludes peace between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. What they do is restore the momentum lost during the prime ministry of Benjamin Netanyahu. One gesture of confidence inspires another.

Many will be needed. The settlement issue is the most difficult to resolve. Mr. Barak is committed to preserve and expand some settlements deemed essential for security. The Palestine Liberation Organization wants a return to the 1967 borders, clearing out all Israeli settlements.

Both sides know that compromises must be reached, dismantling some -- but not all -- settlements. Mr. Barak should show quickly that he is prepared to remove one, against the wishes of its occupants.

Mr. Barak has wisely suggested saving the Jerusalem issue until after the so-called final status agreement. When peace has created psychological security and economic interdependence, Israelis might see the virtue in concessions they would not contemplate now.

The gun issue shows the Palestinian Authority's need to assert its control over its limited territory. The highway will help by uniting that territory and its people and commerce. It's a start.

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