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Time To Say Yes

Prime Minister Sharon had three very good reasons to go to Aqaba this week and offer the string of conciliatory gestures he presented to the Palestinians. Each reason is compelling on its own merits. Taken together, they ought to give pause to the nay-sayers who claim they’re fighting for Israel by resisting President Bush’s peace initiative.

One reason, circulated endlessly through the Washington and Jerusalem chat circuits this week, was the president’s determination to achieve a breakthrough. Bush, it’s now clear, had concluded that the time was right to break the logjam. Each side, Israeli and Palestinian, had stood tight through two and a half years of bloodshed, each one waiting for the other to go first — Israelis, for Palestinians to stop terrorism; Palestinians, for Israelis to endorse statehood and move against settlements. Bush decided both sides should move at once, and having faced down the world over Iraq, he was in a position to get what he wanted.

A second reason, Israeli and American officials quietly admit, is that Israeli action was needed, and quickly, to prop up the new Palestinian prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas. Abbas’s accession was the direct result of Israel’s insistent demand for a new Palestinian leadership in place of the hopelessly compromised Yasser Arafat. But once the new leader was installed, Israel found itself yet again in a deadlock. Israel expected the new leader to deliver at once on ending terrorism; Abbas replied that he needed time and a few tangible gains in order to gain his footing and rebuild his shattered security forces. Israel saw such concessions — before a full halt to terrorism — as tantamount to rewarding terrorism. But the clock was running out. Standing on principle meant letting Abbas collapse, and losing an opportunity — perhaps the last one — to enter into dialogue with a credible Palestinian leadership. And so Sharon bent. He agreed to meet Abbas halfway, to offer gestures and promises of concessions in return for gestures and promises on the other side. And the logjam was broken.

The third reason is the understanding, which Sharon has embraced with astonishing vigor during the last few weeks, that the status quo has become untenable. Israel must disengage from the Palestinians and establish an eastern border for itself at last, with a Jewish state on one side and a Palestinian state on the other. There is, as the last two years have taught, no other way to stop terrorism, no other way to ensure the survival of a Jewish state with a clear Jewish majority, but to end the occupation. Israel’s generals and intelligence chiefs have known this for years. Israeli public opinion has affirmed it unwaveringly through all the ups and downs. Somehow, during the last few weeks, Ariel Sharon finally absorbed it.

It is time that Israel’s friends in this country began to absorb the lessons. The peace process that was renewed this week is not irreversible. It could, with luck and good will, begin a dialogue that will allow Israelis and Palestinians to find a way of sharing the land where both peoples live. But it could collapse, as nay-sayers on both sides are hoping it will. That will leave the hard-liners free to pursue their real dream: fighting to the death for absolute control.

Those who long for that scenario should continue to fight for it. But those who believe in a peaceful future for a Jewish state must begin to face reality and embrace the slender reed that was held out this week. It is time to say Yes.

One might wish, as Sharon surely wishes right now, that Israel could have reached this point with all its negotiating principles intact: no negotiations under fire, no rewarding terrorism, no dialogue with murderers. But those principles, high-minded as they sound, do not lead to the resolution of conflicts. They are, in the final analysis, just excuses for refusing to act.

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