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Tomorrow night in the West Bank, the highest-level meeting between Israeli and Palestinian leaders in three years is set to begin an historic new era in the Mideast peace process in which Yassir Arafat is not at the negotiating table.
New Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon have scheduled this watershed conference to discuss an action plan on the “Road Map to Peace” issued two weeks ago by the U.S. along with the other members of the so-called Quartet—Russia, the UN and EU.
Violence yesterday in Beit Hanoun occasioned by the Palestinian commemoration of “Naqba” (or ‘catastrophe’—the Palestinian term for the creation of Israel) is emblematic of how dire the situation has become in the region. Nevertheless, this new road map offered by a broad coalition is a positive step in moving toward peace. This movement has only been possible because Mahmoud shows promise of renewing a commitment to peace that wilted under Arafat. His promise to end the intifada and its attendant terrorism by either diplomacy or force is an exceptional step, if it is carried out. And there is room for cautious optimism, as his new security chiefs, including Mohammad Dahlan, may be more capable of asserting authority over the many political, religious and militant organizations. Rooting out terrorism is the first priority.
But both sides now need to commit wholeheartedly to peace. While the first priority is the elimination of terrorism on the Palestinian side, Israeli leader Ariel Sharon needs to implement his own policies for peace. The continuing construction of new settlements and new settler “outposts” in the West Bank severely undermines Israel’s commitment to peace. While this construction activity is in no way the moral equivalent of suicide bomber attacks, halting any and all settlement construction immediately is imperative to show respect for the Palestinians.
After this first meeting between Sharon and Abbas, there needs to be a lasting commitment from both sides to come to the negotiating table and there make the concessions needed to halt the downward spiral. America, both as a member of the multilateral Quartet and as a nation heavily invested in the stability of the Middle East, must take a stronger role in promoting and advancing these negotiations. The Bush administration needs to devote to this project the time, will and attention needed to see it through to a satisfactory conclusion. With an immediate goal of ending terror and violence, and an ultimate goal of securing a lasting peace, America must act in concert with its allies to effect change in this region.
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