Playing to the Mideast Middle

Internal political divisions among Israelis and among Palestinians can often influence Middle East peace prospects even more than the division between Israelis and Palestinians.

That's true more than ever right now. In fact, the Bush administration's Middle East envoy, Stephen Hadley, delayed a mediating trip to the region this week because of the current political uncertainty.

Israelis and Palestinians are separately caught up in internal contests over their leadership, with both making crucial decisions on whether they will finally curtail the power of extremist elements that have scuttled peace hopes in the past.

For Palestinians, the passing of Yasser Arafat last month has sparked a healthy public debate leading up to the election of a new president Jan. 9. Hamas, the radical Islamic group behind the killing of Israeli civilians, doesn't stand a chance of winning. While it's boycotting the election, it does hope to compete in later legislative and local elections.

In Israel, the always shaky coalition of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon appears to be falling apart. A key issue is government subsidies to far-right religious parties that favor more Jewish settlements in the West Bank and oppose Mr. Sharon's plan to end the Israeli presence in the Gaza Strip.

It's possible that Sharon's Likud party might now need to drop those far-right parties from the coalition and bring in Labor as a partner, thus raising the chances for making better compromises in any peace talks with a new Palestinian leader.

That new leader is expected to be Mahmoud Abbas, a former close confidant of Arafat. He's still likely to face a rival less open to peace. He's begun to act as if he'll be different from Arafat and work for peace more earnestly. On Tuesday, he ordered a halt to anti-Israel incitement in government-controlled media, meeting a key Israeli demand.

The key to Middle East peace has long been to allow the majority of Palestinians and Israelis to realize their hope for peaceful coexistence of two independent states. That hope has been ruined in the past by either the violence of extremists on both sides, or domestic political maneuvers.

The coming weeks may reveal if the extremists can be marginalized.

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