Gaza Plan Ricochets

Israel's plan to withdraw its forces and Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip next year is already boosting prospects for peace in the Middle East:

• A political split over the withdrawal plan has forced Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to lean his government toward the majority of Israelis who want a peace deal with the Palestinians, perhaps by forming a grand coalition with the opposition Labor party in coming days.

• The Gaza plan has compelled Egypt to consider sending 200 security experts to the neighboring territory to train and supervise Palestinian forces. The aim is to prevent anarchy or a takeover by radical Islamic Palestinian militants from spilling trouble over the border. Egypt's move also creates a possible opening for international troops to safeguard an eventual peace pact.

• The plan has helped force Palestinian officials to finally suppress suicide-bombings (the last one was three months ago), perhaps indicating a possible end to the violent intifada that began nearly two years ago.

These few swallows of hope do not yet make a spring of peace. But they do point to a change of thinking among Palestinians and Israelis, that their leaders must heed.

Most Palestinians are fed up with the poverty and political chaos that the intifada and Israel's response have brought. Israel's fence in the West Bank, and its targeted killings of militant leaders, have only added to a growing disillusionment with violent tactics.

And more Israelis, especially right-wingers opposed to a peace deal, see Israel's character as a Jewish state in jeopardy if the lack of a deal means Israel keeps controlling an expanding and larger Palestinian population.

Egypt, too, sees a chance to push Israel to make even more concessions than a Gaza withdrawal - such as vacating all settlements on the West Bank - and to use its mediating clout with Arabs to bring Palestinian militants to heel.

Achieving an Egyptian presence in Gaza will be difficult for the secular government of President Hosni Mubarak, and runs the risk of Egypt becoming bogged down there. But for now the benefits seem to outweigh the risks.

If Mr. Sharon and Labor can strike a deal for a coalition government, and Palestinian leaders continue to suppress militants, then the path toward peace may become clearer.

At the least, these latest developments may revive hope and reduce the cycle of violence that only encourages despair in the Middle East.

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