Diplomatic payoff

November 16, 2005

With the Bush administration under attack in several corners of the world, an agreement reached in Jerusalem yesterday provided the president and his secretary of state with a bona fide foreign policy achievement. No small feat, given the subject: Palestinian control of the Gaza-Egyptian border. Determined to settle this thorny issue that has stalled since Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip two months ago, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice delayed her trip to Asia to hammer out the deal. The outcome underscores the need for greater U.S. involvement in settling long-standing disputes between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

The border dispute carried great significance for both sides. After the Israeli withdrawal, Palestinians were convinced they would remain imprisoned in the Gaza Strip with no access to the outside world. Israelis had grave concerns that Palestinian control of the Egyptian border would leave Israel vulnerable to security threats. The agreement addresses both concerns.

It will allow Palestinians to travel freely, develop the Gaza Strip with foreign aid and demonstrate their ability to secure the border. It provides Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas with tangible, life-improving benefits for his people, an important political asset for Mr. Abbas and his Fatah party in the run-up to the January parliamentary elections in which Hamas, the party of Islamic militants, is expected to make a credible showing.

Israel, reluctant to give up control, was granted closed-circuit review of the border crossing and the ability to raise questions about travelers. If the agreement initiates an economic recovery in Gaza that brings jobs and progress, it could undercut Hamas' appeal to Palestinian voters, which would also benefit Israel.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon may be engaged in his own election challenge. Mr. Sharon's coalition partner, Labor leader Shimon Peres, lost in a party election to a longtime union chief, Amir Peretz. Mr. Peretz has threatened to bolt Mr. Sharon's government unless new elections are called. A change in Israel's leadership at this time, depending on who won, could scuttle a resumption of peace talks with the Palestinians.

Palestinians must seize this new openness for Gaza and begin rebuilding the impoverished strip. Israelis should consider a new election to be a referendum on the peace process. Above all, the opportunity to move forward should not be lost.

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