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Published: Saturday, 12/25/2004

A promising turn for peace

DESPITE a half-century of failed efforts to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, events may be lining up in such a way that there are real prospects for reaching agreement in 2005.

The passing from the scene of Yasser Arafat has cleared the way for new Palestinian leadership to take the field, potentially more acceptable to the Israelis as interlocuters, not laden down with the baggage that Mr. Arafat carried, and more realistic in the positions that they are likely to take.

The Palestinian elections still have to take place successfully on Jan. 9, but the Palestinians seem already to have settled tentatively on Mahmoud Abbas as successor to Mr. Arafat. Mr. Abbas has already made some careful, conciliatory comments that suggest that he will bring some skill and a constructive approach to the negotiating process.

On the Israeli side, the most interesting phenomenon to watch is the achievement of a Likud-Labor party coalition. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has been unable to cement into place support from his own Likud party for his plan to withdraw some 8,000 settlers and all Israeli forces from Gaza. One barrier to his doing so has been the dependence of his government on support from extremist Israeli parties to retain a majority in the Knesset. Adding Labor to his government solves that problem and brings with him in impending negotiations the strong presence of Labor and his old friend, Labor leader Shimon Peres.

Another positive element in creating potential for fruitful Israeli-Palestinian negotiations is the involvement of a reinvigorated Egypt, under the leadership of President Hosni Mubarak. Egypt has expressed willingness to play a role in maintaining order inside and on the borders of a new Gaza, handed over by the Israelis to the Palestinians as the basis for their homeland.

The final - some would argue, the most important - piece in the affair that increases chances for negotiations to be successful is the pledge President George W. Bush has made, not only to be fully involved but also to bring the conflict to a successful conclusion. Mr. Bush defines that as "a viable independent and democratic state for the Palestinian people" and "security and peace for the state of Israel."

The President states clearly that the time for that is now, and calls it America's "destination," an interesting use of an almost Biblical word. So the two teams, Israeli and Palestinian, are lining up on the field reasonably well-prepared to negotiate, and what has to be the primary referee in the negotiations, the United States, is primed to play its role, its President committed to achieving an agreement during his term.

Before anyone starts to count an agreement before it is hatched, however, it is important to remember that achieving a solution to this particular intractable problem has frustrated the best efforts of many good people over a very long period of time. Nonetheless, the stars may be right now, and 2005 could be a very good year for Middle East peace.



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