New stance may help, not hurt, Mideast peace

April 22, 2004|By Robert O. Freedman

NO SOONER had President Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon sealed agreements on Israel's withdrawal from Gaza than critics denounced them as destroying peace prospects. Yet the Washington accords can reinvigorate the peace process.

Mr. Bush strengthened Mr. Sharon at home in the run-up to the May 2 Likud Party referendum on the Gaza pullout by backing Israel's right to defend itself if the Palestinians launch terrorist attacks from Gaza, by opposing a Palestinian refugee "right of return" to Israel and by asserting that changes will have to be made in the pre-1967 war armistice lines.

And the Israeli assassination of Hamas terrorist leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi further strengthened Mr. Sharon's domestic position.

Assuming the Likud votes for withdrawal from Gaza and several West Bank settlements, this will help the peace process because:

These would be first withdrawals from settlements since Israel pulled out of outposts in Sinai as part of the 1979 peace treaty with Egypt, demonstrating that even hard-liners such as Mr. Sharon are prepared to make sacrifices for peace.

Unlike the 1993 Oslo accords, which left Israeli settlements in Gaza until "final status" talks resolved the issue, the Sharon plan would remove all of the settlements, allowing for the Palestinian Authority to rule all of Gaza.

The Palestinians have the opportunity to move the peace process from its current dead end, where the only activities are Palestinian suicide bombings and Israeli retaliatory strikes.

If the Palestinian Authority can control the terrorist groups (easier now with both Hamas leaders, Sheik Ahmed Yassin and Mr. Rantisi, eliminated), it can demonstrate that it is again a potential partner in the peace process.

Under these circumstances, the difficult issues of Jerusalem and final borders can be negotiated and the peace process moved forward. Whether the Palestinian Authority will seize the opportunity is an open question - especially so long as Yasser Arafat controls the organization.

But the opportunity for peace is there.

Robert O. Freedman is a Peggy Meyerhoff Pearlstone professor of political science at Baltimore Hebrew University and a visiting professor of political science at the Johns Hopkins University.

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