After four and a half years of terror and violence, the proverbial stars seem to be aligned for a new push for peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Unlike his predecessor, the newly elected Palestinian Authority (PA) president, Mahmoud Abbas, stresses the importance of peaceful problem solving and has condemned suicide bombing (in Arabic and in English) as counterproductive. On the Israeli side, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, the onetime architect of the settlement movement, is leading the drive to evacuate all settlers from Gaza and the northern West Bank. At Sharm-el-Sheikh earlier this year, he and Abbas committed to a cease-fire, an important step even if rejectionists on both sides are certain to try to exploit it. In Washington, meanwhile, Condoleezza Rice is as close to the commander in chief as any secretary of state has been since James Baker teamed up with George W. Bush's father, guaranteeing that she speaks with the president's authority.
But even under such relatively favorable conditions, it is wrong to assume that the Israelis and the Palestinians can simply return to the summer of 2000, when Washington thought that an end to the conflict was within sight. Since then, trust between the parties has been shattered by violence, and rebuilding it will not be quick or easy. Reaching for too much too soon will turn the current opening into one more lost opportunity.
Optimists -- arguing that the time is right to work out compromises on such thorny issues as the borders of a Palestinian state, the status of Jerusalem, and the rights of Palestinian refugees -- want to move shortly to negotiations on a final-status agreement. Rushing to an endgame approach, however, will energize hard-liners in both camps and undermine the leadership of Abbas and Sharon. Abbas, despite his victory in the January elections, does not yet have the authority to veer from Yasir Arafat's legacy on the conflict's most sensitive issues. Sharon, for his part, has won domestic support for his
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