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First Steps

There are reasons aplenty to be skeptical of the sudden Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic flurry. President Bush and Prime Minister Sharon have never shown enthusiasm for the sort of peace-making they now embrace. Their Palestinian partner, new Prime Minister Abu Mazen, barely clings to power. Their “road map” is full of inconsistencies. Extremists on all sides are itching to stop it. Most of all, we’ve seen so many plans come and go that it’s hard to believe this one will work.

For all those reasons, it’s essential to acknowledge what happened this week. Bush turned his eye to the Middle East conflict, as he said he would. Sharon called for an “end to the occupation” of 3.5 million Palestinians, as his critics, his generals and his public have so long urged. Israel’s Likud-led government formally adopted the goal of Palestinian statehood, the first Israeli government ever to do so. No less important, the prime minister of the Palestinian Authority formally committed himself to a war on terrorism.

After two and a half years of unrelenting bloodshed, it appears as though a balance has tipped on both sides. There is an opening, tentative but real, for compromise and sanity.

American pressure played a critical role in getting the parties to this point. It is to Bush’s credit that he has managed to apply that pressure in a way that both sides have, so far, found bearable. Given the deep wounds on both sides, naked force wouldn’t have worked; it would have locked the combatants in place rather than brought them into dialogue. Bush and his administration, for all their ham-fisted reputation, proved capable of finesse just when it was needed.

But pressure alone was not sufficient. Genuine leadership was required from Sharon and Abu Mazen, and both leaders stepped forward. Both men have reputations for violence, as their respective detractors delight in pointing out. But both have deep streaks of pragmatism as well.

Abu Mazen was the co-author of the 1995 Beilin-Abu Mazen plan, which offered breakthrough Palestinian concessions on settlements and Jerusalem. In the months leading up to his appointment as Palestinian prime minister, he has been the leading Palestinian voice against terrorism.

As for Sharon, he was the Israeli leader who oversaw the evacuation of the Sinai settlements in 1981, and the first Likud leader to publish a map of possible Israeli West Bank concessions, in 1987. In recent months he has been consistent in declaring that the time had come for Israel to disengage from the territories and end its rule over the Palestinians, for Israel’s sake as well as the Palestinians’. For years Sharon’s Likud rivals, recalling the labor influences of his formative years, have accused him of being a Mapainik, a Labor pragmatist, in wolf’s clothing. This week’s events may well have proved them right.

It’s too soon to declare peace, of course. What’s happened so far is just the first step in a 1,000-mile journey. The two sides have finally agreed to begin talking about how to get out of the hole they’re in. But that is no small thing. The process had been hopelessly, bloodily stuck for months while each side waited for the other side to make the first move. Thanks to President Bush, they have finally taken that first step.


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