Defying Old Mideast Instincts

Old habits die hard, especially when they concern Middle East peace.

Just days after the promising Palestinian election to choose a successor to Yasser Arafat Jan. 9, the region sank again into violence and retaliation. Before Mahmoud Abbas was even sworn in as the Palestinians' new president on Saturday, militants killed six Israeli civilians at a Gaza checkpoint, prompting the Israeli government to sever communication with the new leader, and to threaten major military action.

If the leaders involved aren't alert, they will be tempted to think that nothing has changed, or can change. But it is just that kind of mental malaise which will prolong the habitual practice of attack and counterattack, so counterproductive to the peace process.

All sides - and that includes the US, Europe, and the Arab world - need to erect a flashing neon sign in their thinking: The Arafat era is over. While it looks like it's back to the same-old, same-old between Palestinians and Israelis, in fact the political landscape on both sides is significantly altered.

Most important, the Palestinian people have just elected as their leader a moderate who denounces violence as the means to statehood. The Palestinian democratic process is now rolling, with parliamentary and municipal elections still ahead.

In Israel, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has taken the risky decision to defy his own party, and join forces with the opposition Labor Party to organize the complete dismantling of Jewish settlements in Gaza.

In the US, President Bush starts a second term in which he no longer needs to worry about reelection, and by extension, can free himself - though not his party - from the pressures of the pro-Israel lobby.

If these new circumstances are to be taken advantage of, they will require new thinking.

The Israelis say they want to give Mr. Abbas a chance to succeed in shutting down anti-Israeli militants, but closing the lines of communication so quickly last week did nothing to support the fledgling leader. More patience and self-restraint will have to characterize a new mind-set for the Israelis.

Abbas is in Gaza this week, trying to work out a cease-fire with the militant groups. During his campaign, he tried to curry favor with these groups and their followers by appearing to side with their cause. His strategy is to convert them to the emerging political process, but unlike his predecessor, he must be willing to disarm (forcibly, if it comes to that), those who continue to practice violence.

As for Mr. Bush, he must not fall into the trap of waiting for Abbas to prove himself before delivering desperately needed financial and institution-building assistance. Abbas's government needs help now. Palestinians need real improvement in their lives, not the promise of improvement.

Yes, old habits do die hard. But they won't fall away with old thinking.

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