Don't Give Up on Peace

A simple definition of hope is the feeling that something wanted is likely to happen. There are still many people in Israel and the Palestinian territories who fervently want peace, but recent events have battered the sense that it's likely to come any time soon.

And yet hope is not entirely out of the picture. The plan put together months ago by former US Sen. George Mitchell still offers a credible path toward renewed talks. Hard-line, militant policies - either shutting down Palestinian institutions on the one side, or glorifying acts of suicidal terrorism on the other - lead nowhere.

To get back to negotiations, the Mitchell plan outlines a sensible series of steps. They include more concrete action by Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority to stop terrorist attacks against Israel. They also include a freeze by Israel on expanding the West Bank and Gaza settlements that are obstructions to peace.

Such steps could seem hopelessly distant now, after the latest, devastating suicide bomb attacks in Israel - and the Israeli response of evicting Palestinians from public offices in Jerusalem, including Orient House, long a symbol of Palestinian aspirations for statehood.

But even in this tense environment, the push to reestablish contact should continue. Last year's negotiations, though they ultimately failed, demonstrated that Palestinians and Israelis could come tantalizingly close to agreement. The descent into violence since then has shown, sadly, how readily the opposite tendency surfaces - open, vicious conflict.

Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres is far from a dominant voice in Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government. But he uttered a penetrating truth when he said that closing the door on negotiations until violent attacks end gives every man with a gun, or bomb, veto power.

Washington's policy has been that the two sides have to be ready to talk, that they can't be forced to the table. But the use of US influence to restart negotiations along the Mitchell lines is a practical necessity.

American interests in the region hinge on a peaceful resolution of the central conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Standing too far off on the sidelines could allow conflict to grow until there's little opening to step in and help facilitate peace. And if the US won't take on the job, who will?

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