FOR MORE THAN 1,000 days, the Israeli military controlled the main road bisecting the Gaza Strip, home to 1.2 million Palestinians. Not so today.
Palestinian security forces stand at a key intersection on the route, and Palestinians drive up and down the 25 miles of asphalt. The change in traffic patterns reflects a seismic movement in the protracted Middle East conflict: Israel's first pullback from land it reoccupied in the 33 months since the latest Palestinian uprising began.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who directed Israel's punishing offensive against Palestinian cities and towns to thwart terrorism, is moving ahead on the U.S.-backed "road map" to peace with deliberate speed. His adherence to the plan touted by President Bush will enable Palestinians in Gaza to resume some semblance of normal life. And if Palestinian officials can hold militants to their pledge to halt attacks against Israelis for 90 days, a sense of calm should return to Israeli cities and towns, and the difficult work of negotiating a true settlement can begin.
Neither side has to let its past dictate the future, though the force of history is great. Mr. Sharon and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas recognized yesterday the opportunity at hand. "A better future for both peoples," Mr. Sharon said. Every day without a peace agreement, said Mr. Abbas, is "an opportunity lost; every life sacrificed is a human tragedy." But speeches won't make it so, and eloquence can't substitute for commitment.
If pressure from the United States, European backers and Arab leaders forged the handshakes in Jerusalem yesterday, the patrons of this work in progress have to insist on follow-through. That means continued Israeli troop withdrawals and the dismantling of Jewish settlements for Mr. Sharon and his government, and a crackdown on Palestinian terrorist groups and resumption of security patrols by Mr. Abbas and his ministers.
The intervention of the White House will be essential to keep both sides on track. The Bush administration should pester its allies to stop financing groups that instigate and carry out terrorist attacks. Mr. Abbas may need American dollars as well as diplomatic support to rebuild the Palestinian government and its credibility.
Expectations should be realistic. After 33 months of attacks and counterattacks and more than 2,400 Palestinians and 800 Israelis killed in the violence, the landscape is littered with political landmines: Disarming Palestinian militias and releasing Palestinian prisoners are but two. Mr. Sharon and Mr. Abbas should proceed with caution, but proceed nevertheless.