An engaged Mideast policy

December 17, 2004

MARWAN Barghouti, the popular Palestinian activist imprisoned for his part in murderous attacks on Israelis, dropped out of the Palestinian presidential race this week as abruptly as he entered it. His decision leaves Mahmoud Abbas, the top contender to succeed the late Yasser Arafat, free to focus on consolidating support and forging a consensus on how best to deal with Israel. If the Jan. 9 vote proceeds smoothly, the Bush administration must be ready to act to use the election of a new Palestinian president as leverage for a substantive dialogue with Israel. In a conflict as volatile as this, the chance to end a cycle of violence and retribution can't be squandered.

That's why the attitude of some White House policy-makers to let the Israelis and Palestinians work through their claims at their own pace is troubling. A resumption of some normality won't be brokered easily even with Mr. Arafat gone. The violence of the past four years has left more than 1,000 Israelis dead and three times that number of Palestinians. It has intensified the Israeli military occupation on the West Bank, decimated the Palestinian economy and spawned Israel's divisive security barrier. While Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has put forth a plan to withdraw soldiers and settlers from the Gaza Strip, West Bank settlement expansion has flourished, strengthening Israel's grip on land Palestinians want for a state of their own.

And yet both sides have recognized the opportunity here and taken steps toward a rapprochement. Israel has pledged not to interfere in next month's Palestinian elections and released some Palestinian prisoners as a sign of good will. Mr. Abbas, a former peace negotiator who succeeded Mr. Arafat as chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, ordered an end to the media's daily incitement against Israel and Jews. In its place, surprisingly, are words of moderation and respect for "the other."

Mr. Bush can't afford to sit on the sidelines and watch these events unfold, not if he is serious about promoting democracy in the Middle East. The absence of an Israeli-Palestinian peace process allows Arab leaders to harangue the United States about bias toward Israel and divert attention from their regimes' abysmal lack of reforms.

Despite recent polls that show a decline in Palestinian support for violence, a first since the start of the armed uprising in 2000, some Palestinian militants remain actively engaged. Witness the weekend tunnel explosion at the Gaza-Egypt border that killed four Israeli soldiers. And freezing Israeli settlement expansion -- a must, in our view -- won't occur without a fight from hard-liners.

The give-and-take that will be required of a new Palestinian Authority and Mr. Sharon's government to rebuild Palestinian society, rein in the militants and restore Israeli confidence in the possibility of a secure peace will need the prodding and involvement of the United States, European Union and Arab leaders.

The failure to move this process forward can no longer be blamed on an obstinate Mr. Arafat.

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