An offer worth exploring

November 29, 2006

Any cessation of violence between Israel and the Palestinian territories is worth applauding because of the lives saved. But what would make the present cease-fire different from the rest would be serious talks between the two governments and substantive changes in the daily lives of their people. Two things come immediately to mind: stopping the daily rocket attacks from northern Gaza into Israel and restoring funds to the Palestinian Authority so it can pay its workers and ease the economic deprivation of many Palestinians.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas tomorrow, but her visit has to go beyond an appearance for appearance's sake. The region's troubles demand robust diplomacy by the Bush administration to counter the influence of Iran and Syria on the area's Islamic militants.

Lebanon is a prime example. Hezbollah, the country's leading Islamic party and militia, has been agitating to increase its power within the U.S.-backed government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. The Nov. 21 assassination of Industry Minister Pierre Gemayel, the son of a prominent Christian political family, exacerbated the situation, sending Christian, Druze and Sunni Muslim supporters of the government into the streets to protest Mr. Gemayel's murder.

Hezbollah leaders, who are supported by Iran and Syria, are promising their own massive protests, which some fear could lead to a return to factional warfare. But the coalition of government supporters should resist taking up arms and rely on the Lebanese army. Its efforts should be focused on shoring up the democratic government against Hezbollah's advances.

Hezbollah's power grab is one outcome of its summer war with Israel, which coincided with the abduction of an Israeli soldier by Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip. But, after five months of violence, Palestinian factions who had been firing rockets into southern Israel agreed to the cease-fire last weekend. Israel responded by withdrawing its troops from Gaza and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert followed with a list of compromises his government would make if dialogue can begin. The Palestinians should respond, and they should start with the Hamas-led government acknowledging Israel's right to exist.

That first step could lead to other confidence-building measures, which Ms. Rice should help devise. Israel's offer, if met, carries benefits for Palestinians: a reduction in Israeli checkpoints, a return of millions in tax receipts owed the PA and the release of some Palestinian prisoners.

There is much to be gained if the two sides can forestall, rather than incite, a return to violence.

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