What's changed?

November 09, 2003

TODAY, PALESTINIANS by the thousands are able to travel to Israel to work. Hard to believe, but true. In a two-sentence announcement last week, Israel granted work permits to as many as 15,000 Palestinians after a three-month hiatus. The decision comes as Israeli officials quietly renewed talks with Palestinians and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said he was willing to meet with the Palestinian prime minister. The gestures run counter to the Sharon government's military response to nearly three years of Palestinian suicide bombings and attacks.

Simply put, what's changed? Have Palestinian militants renounced violence, as Mr. Sharon insists they must before Israel withdraws from the front lines? Has Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat relinquished control of his dysfunctional government? Has incitement ceased?

Regrettably, none of the above. However, other events are at work here. Two weeks ago, the Israeli army chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon, criticized the Sharon government's strong-arm tactics against Palestinians. And a recent poll found that 59 percent of Europeans rated Israel as "a threat to peace in the world," ahead of North Korea, Iraq and Iran.

The government took a drubbing, at home and abroad, and it reacted harshly to both. When General Yaalon, the man in charge of carrying out Israel's targeted assassinations of Palestinian militants, house demolitions and land confiscations, broke ranks and said the policies were inflaming Palestinian anger and increasing support for the militants, his candid assessment unnerved a nation not wholly enamoured of its warrior prime minister. It also underscored what Mr. Sharon's critics and this newspaper have stated repeatedly - that a military response to Palestinian violence won't end terrorism or bring about a peaceful solution to the conflict.

To see the Sharon government alleviate the hardships of Palestinians in some way cannot be dismissed. Palestinians who received work permits have a chance again to provide for their families. But for how long? Until the next suicide bomber blows up an Israeli restaurant or bus stop?

Incremental steps cannot be a substitute - or subterfuge - for real change by both sides. The Bush administration should stress that point to Israel's defense minister when he visits this week. The critical issues at the core of the defunct U.S.-sponsored "road map to peace" remain in force. Palestinian militant groups ponder their next attack, and Palestinian leaders refuse to dismantle them. Mr. Sharon keeps building Jewish settlements on disputed West Bank land and pushes ahead with a security fence that isolates Palestinian villages and towns.

In the Palestinian village of Jayyous, farmers are watching their crops die. They have been cut off from two-thirds of their fields and the wells that irrigate them by Israel's security fence. The gates that give farmers access to their land have been closed more often than open, including, at one point this fall, 20 out of 30 days. Farmers need special permits to use the gates, which are given out selectively.

Much has changed for the villagers of Jayyous. And nothing's changed.

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