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The Palestinian Moment

More abruptly than anyone could have predicted, the death of Yasser Arafat has cleared the path for a new beginning in Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy, if the key players know how to read the signs and seize the opportunities.

On the Palestinian side, Mahmoud Abbas, the longtime Arafat lieutenant known as Abu Mazen, has moved with unexpected swiftness to assert control. More unexpectedly, he has sent out clear, explicit signals of his intention to halt terrorism and turn the Palestinian Authority into a credible negotiating partner. His plan is not to break the terrorist apparatus of Hamas and groups like it, but to jawbone the extremists into holding their fire in return for a seat at the table. That’s not the clear break with violence that Jerusalem and Washington have consistently demanded, but Palestinians say it’s the best they can deliver, and it should be good enough for now.

On the Israeli side, Prime Minister Sharon has sent encouraging signals that he might be willing to settle for what the Palestinians can offer as a decent opening to dialogue. Meeting with Likud mayors this week, he suggested that he might be willing to involve the Palestinian Authority in the implementation of his Gaza disengagement plan, turning a unilateral withdrawal into a bilateral process that could lead to future agreements. At the same time, he’s wisely refrained from embracing Abbas too closely, realizing that a bear hug from Israel right now would undercut the legitimacy of any new Palestinian leader. Crucially, Sharon is also rejecting demands from Benjamin Netanyahu and others to his right that he freeze the disengagement plan in the wake of Arafat’s death. Now is not the time to lose momentum.

Each side must now show the other that it is serious about moving forward. For the Palestinians, that means getting a cease-fire in place fast and making it stick, facing down the extremists among them if need be. For the Israelis, it means giving the Palestinians the breathing space to act: letting Palestinian security personnel move freely, clearing checkpoints so civilian life can get back to normal and, especially, creating viable conditions for Palestinian elections January 9.

Most of all, what’s needed is for Washington to step back into the arena and lead. Both Sharon and Abbas will face formidable opposition from their respective hard-liners. They’ll need encouragement, steadying and the sorts of rewards to show their constituents that only Washington can guarantee. That doesn’t require a “great calling of history to aid the forces of reform and freedom in the broader Middle East,” as President Bush worryingly invoked in his remarks this week nominating Condoleezza Rice as secretary of state. On the contrary, it means focusing on the little things that move history forward.

It’s often been said that America can’t want peace more than the parties themselves want it. Sharon and Abbas have now shown they want to move forward. It’s time for America to roll up its sleeves and get back into the game.

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