Sometimes you have to pinch yourself.
The Palestinian group Hamas, responsible for dozens of suicide bombings, ponders a cease-fire. A hard-line Israeli prime minister, breaking a taboo, refers to his country's "occupation" of Palestinian lands. And President Bush, once loath to risk an attempt to make peace between Israelis and Palestinians, is expected to sit down Wednesday with their leaders at a summit meeting in Jordan.
After 32 months of Israeli-Palestinian strife, these developments may seem hard to believe. But even those who've been disappointed by failed peace initiatives in recent years say it is time for hope. "We should be cautiously optimistic, mainly because it seems Bush is quite determined," says Gershon Baskin, Israeli codirector of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information.
Still, this conflict rewards skeptics, and there are several reasons why Bush's intervention may falter. One is that the dynamic that has stopped earlier peacemaking initiatives - each side's insistence that the other act first - is still present.
In Catch-22 fashion, Israelis and Palestinians alike insist that the success of the US-backed road map toward peace, a plan devised with UN, European, and Russian input, depends on the other side.
The Israelis say the Palestinians must cease violence before substantive peace talks can proceed. Palestinian Authority West Bank security chief Zuhair Manasra says that ending violence - either by common agreement or by force - will be possible only if Israel and the US delineate "a clear political result that we can expect in a 90 percent guaranteed way."
Israel seems ready to take what one senior Israeli official calls "reversible" steps - releasing Palestinian prisoners, transferring tax revenues to the PA, easing the "closure" of the West Bank and Gaza Strip - "in order to help [newly appointed Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas] and his people."
"The Israeli government is willing to do more than in the past," says the official, speaking on condition of anonymity. Indeed, Israel Tuesday released about 100 of the thousands of the Palestinians they have detained, though reports ahead of the release said the Israelis were likely to free those nearing the end of their periods of detention.
On May 25, Sharon's Cabinet offered a conditional acceptance of the road map - which calls for the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza within three years - and the prime minister himself has alarmed his right-wing supporters by referring to Israel's presence in the Palestinian territories as "occupation"; but the Palestinians are a long way from convinced. The militant group Hamas, for instance, has debated for months its acquiescence in a cease-fire.
Members of the group, says one Western diplomat who also spoke on condition of anonymity, "are deeply skeptical about the road map and see this very much as a trap whereby the Palestinians are going to be forced to give up the resistance and the intifada without political gains."
"Hamas doesn't trust Israel and doesn't think it will respond positively to a truce," says Jawad Bahar, an Islamic leader in the southern West Bank city of Hebron who has spent years in Israeli jails on charges of belonging to Hamas, which he denies.
But he adds that Palestinians generally may shift their thinking if the Israelis ease off. "When people see that Israel is stopping killings, assassinations, and demolitions, they will turn to support the peace process."
The Israelis are similarly mistrustful of Palestinian intentions. Officials worry that any cease-fire will serve as a pause to regroup and re-arm rather than as breathing space for negotiations.
If Abbas fails to engineer a cease-fire, he will have to use his security forces to stop Hamas and other militant factions. Toward that end, in a parking lot in Ramallah, the hub city of the West Bank, newly reconstituted Palestinian security forces are renewing their training.
These forces, some of whose members have engaged in attacks against Israel during the past 32 months, are in a shambles. Israeli troops have destroyed their buildings and vehicles and arrested and killed some Palestinians security-force members.
These days they train in civilian clothes and without weapons, because an assembly of armed, uniformed men in a Palestinian city may bring arrest or worse at the hands of Israeli soldiers. Still, says Jamil, a Palestinian officer who wouldn't give his family name, he and his colleagues are ready to go to work, even if that means arresting Palestinians intent on fighting Israel.
He notes that attacks on Israel usually bring Israeli reprisals, which sometimes result in the death of innocent Palestinians. "We understand [the work of the Palestinian security forces] as protecting the lives of our people."
Another reason for skepticism is that the method that the US is promoting as a means to reach a peace - encouraging the two sides to do small things that will improve the atmosphere and lead to a breakthrough - is very similar to the "peace process" that fell apart nearly three years ago.
The road map outlines steps toward a state with provisional borders and puts off resolution of the most difficult issues that divide the two sides, including what to do about Palestinian refugees and their descendants and who should administer Jerusalem and its holy sites.
Similarly, the "peace process" initiated at Oslo, Norway, in 1993, concentrated on small steps and postponed "final status" considerations. But the situation is not entirely similar. For one thing, despite the Palestinians' insistence that they need a clearer sense of what their state will be, the road map offers greater certainty than Oslo that the outcome will be a state of Palestine.
And while there is no clear enforcement mechanism in the road map, it does call for international monitors to oversee implementation. That feature addresses a failing of Oslo - the absence of any means to force the parties to comply with their commitments.
Arguing that the big issues remain unresolvable, the Israel official says the "going back to partial steps is not a bad idea."
SHARM EL-SHEIKH, EGYPT - President Bush won a commitment from Arab leaders Tuesday to support the US-backed road map for peace that would lead to the creation of a Palestinian state by 2005, even as new doubts emerged about how the plan could be upheld.
Leaders from Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain said they would support an end to violence against Israelis as long as Israel commits to withdrawing its military forces from the West Bank and removing its settlements.
Reading a statement from the group, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said that "We support the determination of the Palestinian Authority to fulfill its responsibilities to end violence and to restore law and order.... We will continue to reject the culture of extremism and violence in any form ... regardless of justifications...."
With the azure shore of the Red Sea as a backdrop, Mr. Bush responded that "I am pleased to stand here today with leaders of the Arab world who have declared their firm rejection of terrorism."
Even as Arab leaders committed to efforts to create a Palestinian state, though, concerns arose as to ways violent Palestinian groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad could be made to comply.
Bush met with new Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas for the first time Tuesday. In an open meeting with other Arab leaders present, Bush reminded Mr. Abbas of his responsibility for stopping violence perpetrated by Palestinian factions. "A few terrorists can't be allowed to derail hopes for peace," Bush said.
Israeli and US officials have said they are determined to limit Palestinian President Yassir Arafat's participation in the peace process. The gathering in Sharm El-Sheikh - in which Abbas pledged to work with the international community - went some way towards making Mr. Arafat's isolation a fait accompli.
Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Sha-ath said he welcomed the new US commitment to peace, but stressed that the Palestinian Authority he represents has "no ability to crack down on anybody."
Speaking to reporters in an impromptu interview here, Mr. Sha-ath said that Israeli security forces had in recent months all but eviscerated the emerging Palestinian state's ability to control armed factions within its borders.
The US and European-backed road map does not yet provide for an international-security mechanism - including the possible use of foreign peacekeepers - to assure that both Israelis and Palestinians abide by it. Egyptian officials questioned Bush's determination to give the plan teeth. "What is required is a firm (US) commitment, implementation, and monitoring of the implementation," said Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher.
Still, Arab leaders rallied around Bush's stated commitment to a two-state solution. They committed Tuesday to recognition of Israel as long as Israeli forces withdraw from all lands seized in the 1967 Six-Day War. Israel remains reluctant to hand back all the territories and to remove settlements from the West Bank. But a week ago, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon shocked many Israelis by proclaiming that Israel's "occupation" cannot "continue endlessly."
US efforts to get the Arab leaders to commit to establishing immediate relations with Israel were left hanging. Secretary of State Colin Powell said that Bush is not seeking an immediate resolution of that issue.
- Philip Smucker