Mideast diplomacy

February 06, 2005

WHEN ISRAELIS and Palestinians meet Tuesday at the Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheik, Egypt, they should dispense with formalities and get down to business. Every one at this Middle East summit knows each other. What they have to discover is how willing the other is to advance the cause of peace, and at what pace.

The summit is the first meeting of substance between Israel's prime minister and a Palestinian president since violence erupted four years ago, intensifying the Israeli military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and bringing a halt to the peace process. This is a chance to renew diplomacy that could secure Israel as a Jewish homeland and give Palestinians their own state. To start, both sides must work toward adopting confidence-building measures that can overcome the suspicion and mistrust that dominated the latter years of Yasser Arafat's leadership. Until some trust is restored, negotiations on the greater issues that divide them won't occur.

Some progress has already been made. President Bush's $350 million aid pledge to the Palestinians will help improve desperate lives and bolster Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' credibility with his people. It's the kind of activism this administration should continue to pursue.

Mr. Abbas has worked toward a cease-fire with militants, a pause in the violence that Israel must match in some way. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's security forces have agreed to suspend targeted assassinations of militants. And Mr. Abbas, a veteran negotiator, should see to it that the leadership of Hamas and other groups don't use this respite to fortify their arsenals.

Mr. Sharon, the retired general who helped forge Israel's settlement policy, has agreed to release 900 Palestinian prisoners and begin withdrawing his troops from five West Bank towns. Both moves should help Mr. Abbas' reputation on the streets of Ramallah and Nablus and Gaza City. All these measures are a good start at forging a working relationship based on realistic expectations of what can be accomplished after years of terrorist bombings and retaliatory attacks.

Both Mr. Sharon and Mr. Abbas face pressures from citizens: Settler opposition to Mr. Sharon's Gaza withdrawal plan has aided his critics, and Palestinians view as corrupt some officials under Mr. Abbas who are working to meet Israel's security demands.

A cessation of violence must be Mr. Abbas' paramount objective, but that cannot be the exclusive measure of progress. Mr. Sharon needs to address the expanding West Bank settlements. He has found his peace partner in Mr. Abbas, who opposed the militarization of the Palestinian uprising. Mr. Abbas has in Mr. Sharon a prime minister willing to challenge his political base to move ahead. For now, they need to find the best way to prolong this welcome rapprochement.

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