Strike a Mideast deal now, or hold your peace

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Is 2005 the year of the breakthrough in Palestinian-Israeli relations? Despite renewed fighting and tension in recent days, it is just possible. But the window of opportunity is narrow. The experts I've been talking to say that Mahmoud Abbas and Ariel Sharon have about six to nine months to establish the constructive relationship that could set their respective peoples on the road to a settlement of their long confrontation.

That will be achieved not by some dramatic, all-encompassing summit, but by confidence-building moves toward peeling away layers of distrust and bitterness built up over decades.

This will require serious commitment from the US, support from Arab nations such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, help from the European Union, and cooperation from other major countries like Russia.

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The Palestinians will need hope for the future: freedom of movement and improvement of a miserable economy. The Israelis will need guarantees that their borders will not be violated. The Palestinians will need to forsake violence. The Israelis will need to give up territory.

If this seems formidable to orchestrate, it is. But circumstances have developed that permit dialogue to begin.

With the passing of Yasser Arafat, the Palestinians freely elected a new leader, Mahmoud Abbas, who has renounced violence and can engage in negotiations with the Israelis. Israel's Prime Minister Sharon has congratulated Mr. Abbas on his election. President Bush, who scorned Arafat as an acceptable interlocutor, has applauded Abbas.

What we have here is the best chance for peace talks in years.

So what can they talk about?

Israel will be looking for proof that despite some tough talk from Abbas during his election campaign designed to neutralize hard-line elements like Hamas - and woo militants within his own Fatah party - he is a man of moderation. What Israel desires more than all else is a cessation of Palestinian violence against Israeli citizens. Polls suggest that the majority of Palestinians, although not necessarily trusting of Mr. Sharon, are exhausted by confrontation and are ready for a peaceful accord with Israel. Hamas and other extremists may not be so ready, as was evident from continued attacks on Israelis last week. They must be persuaded by Abbas that he can do more to achieve Palestinian objectives through negotiation than they can through violence. The Israelis, in turn, must be persuaded that Abbas is succeeding in this difficult endeavor. If Palestinian attacks should continue, Sharon's instinct will be to respond with overwhelming force, and the cycle of violence would begin again.

For their part, the Palestinians would be heartened by the ending of Israeli checkpoints and arrests and incursions by Israeli soldiers. They would be encouraged by more normal commerce, which would be a fillip to their moribund economy. A big plus would be the release of some of the 7,000 Palestinians being held in Israeli prisons. A mass release is unlikely, but if there were to be a steady trickle of a dozen or so a week, this would give Palestinians a sense that the relationship with Israel was improving.

What should the US be doing?

Clearly, it should be facilitating talks between Abbas and Sharon. Another positive step the Bush administration could encourage would be talks between the Palestinian and Israeli security forces.

Yet another would be continuing support for Sharon's plan to withdraw from Gaza, abandoning Israeli settlements there. While this is a difficult internal political problem for Sharon, he now has included the Labor Party in a coalition with his ruling Likud party. Labor's Shimon Peres, as deputy prime minister, will play a significant role in administering the Gaza withdrawal under Sharon's overall direction.

In bolstering the democratic process in the Palestinian territories (elections are yet to come for the legislative council and in the Fatah party), the Europeans, often pro- Palestinian in sentiment, could be helpful if so persuaded by the US. They could be similarly helpful in making clear to Palestinian elements like Hamas the political cost of continuing violence. The Europeans could also make clear to interfering countries like Iran that continuing efforts to sabotage the Palestinian-Israeli peace process would result in serious negative consequences, particularly in the flow of European economic aid and investment.

While the opportunity for peaceful progress is exciting, the challenges are great and time is short.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret Morning News.

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