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In the Mideast, Steps Forward

June 06, 2005

The "two steps forward and one step back" peace process between Israel and the Palestinians was seldom better demonstrated than last week. Israel made progress by freeing 400 Palestinian prisoners and setting June 21 as the date for a meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Then it stepped backward by forging ahead with plans to build still more houses in the largest West Bank settlement, despite U.S. demands that settlements not be expanded.

Sharon's claim during a Washington visit last month that his government would "do our utmost to cooperate" with Abbas was undercut by the solicitation of bids by Israel's Lands Administration to build more homes in the settlement of Maale Adumim, near Jerusalem. That's unfortunate because Abbas came away from his own trip to Washington, soon after Sharon's, with something his predecessor, Yasser Arafat, never got: a White House meeting with President Bush. The photos, joint news conference and Bush's demand that Israel freeze the settlements should show Palestinians that they benefit more from continuing the cease-fire.

Bush's warm words for Abbas were a strong sign of Washington's increased involvement in mediating between Palestinians and Israelis since Arafat's death in November. The president's announcement that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would soon visit both sides indicates the importance the administration attaches to the peace process. The stepped-up involvement of Army Lt. Gen. William Ward as a go-between on security issues between Israel and the Palestinians also is welcome. Past U.S. mediators have failed, but that was during Arafat's tenure. Nonetheless, Ward will have to walk a fine line between Palestinian desires to get materiel -- weapons, armored vehicles and communications equipment to replace what Israel destroyed during the Palestinian uprising that began in September 2000 -- and Israel's worry that the guns would wind up in the hands of terrorists.

A February meeting between Sharon and Abbas resulted in the Palestinian cease-fire, which has been largely successful. This month's meeting should discuss coordination of Israel's planned August withdrawal from Gaza and four small West Bank settlements. Abbas needs to ensure that Israeli troops and settlers are not attacked as the Israeli government forces the settlers to leave their homes, especially in Gaza. The withdrawal is in Israel's own interest, as Sharon recognizes, but Abbas could also use it to show the Palestinians the tangible benefits of negotiations rather than violence. There's far to go before the Palestinian -- and Bush's -- desire for an independent country is achieved, but the progress since November is encouraging, even with the occasional setbacks.

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