A new path

February 11, 2005

THE HANDSHAKE between Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at their Egyptian summit this week telegraphed to the world their commitment to end hostilities. That's a significant step forward after four years of suicide bombings and retaliatory attacks that have killed 1,000 Israelis and 3,400 Palestinians. There's reason to be hopeful for the first time in a long time. Both men are pragmatic realists who know what needs to be done to extend this moment of promise on the path to peace. But know this: They will be tested.

Mr. Abbas, Mr. Sharon and their Egyptian and Jordanian hosts deserve credit for seizing the opportunity to renew relations and make the tough choices to bring about a cessation of violence. For Mr. Sharon, that means withdrawing his military forces from five Palestinian towns and beginning the release of Palestinian prisoners. Mr. Abbas has the challenging task of ending violent attacks by Palestinian militants who take their orders from others. If he can't persuade them to stop, Palestinian security forces will have to do the job for him. Mr. Abbas met his first test yesterday when militants unleashed a barrage of mortars and rockets at Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip and the Palestinian president fired his security chiefs there.

Just as critical as Mr. Abbas' work in the territories is a planned trip to Damascus by the Palestinian foreign minister, Nabil Shaath. Mr. Shaath's mission: to win the support of some of the militants' key political leaders who are based there. The outcome could have grave consequences for Mr. Abbas. Should the militants continue to defy Mr. Abbas' commitment to end violence against Israelis, Mr. Sharon's challenge will be to resist calls from the conservative flank of his government to go on the attack and immediately redeploy Israeli troops.

In sum, while Mr. Abbas will have to act forcefully, Mr. Sharon will have to show some restraint.

But the United States, Egypt and Jordan, who each helped bring about this week's summit, can assist in the process. The United States has offered a much needed economic aid package to the Palestinians and an Army general to help direct and enhance security. The Bush administration also must prod the Israelis to deal with settlement expansion and live up to their commitments to release Palestinian prisoners. Mr. Sharon reportedly has agreed to free even those with "blood on their hands," previously unthinkable for this tough retired general, if his plan to withdraw troops and settlers from Gaza goes off unimpeded. The prospect of imprisoned Palestinians returning home should be a powerful incentive for Palestinians to oppose militants among them.

Egypt and Jordan are returning their ambassadors to Tel Aviv in a goodwill gesture. But they too must be prepared to help Palestinians revitalize their social and civil way of life.

Although heavily scripted, the Israeli-Palestinian summit provided the basic outline for renewed diplomacy. Now Mr. Abbas and Mr. Sharon have to fill in the details and carry them forward week by week. Neither side can afford to let this opportunity pass, and the same should be said of President Bush, who has set as a priority fostering democracy in the Middle East.

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