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Risking peace

November 22, 2005

ARIEL SHARON IS A GAMBLER. Whether leading troops in battle against Arab nations more than 30 years ago as an Israeli army commander or overseeing the withdrawal of Israeli settlers from the Gaza Strip this summer as prime minister of Israel, he has always been a daring tactician. The danger of his latest maneuver, his dramatic decision Monday to bolt the Likud Party, is that it will immobilize the Mideast peace process just when it was showing some small signs of progress.

Sharon's decision, which capped two weeks of upheaval in Israeli politics, will force new elections, probably in March. Palestinian parliamentary elections scheduled for January already threaten the peace process, as politicians worry more about getting elected than agreeing with their foes.

Sharon is betting that his formation of a new party, more centrist than the conservative Likud he co-founded three decades ago, will keep him in power with a public that largely supported the Gaza pullout. Sharon is 77. Two weeks ago, 82-year-old Shimon Peres was ousted as leader of the Labor Party in favor of a politician who wanted Labor to secede from Sharon's coalition government.

Between Peres' defeat and Sharon's decision came last week's hands-on diplomacy by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to achieve concrete progress in the Israeli-Palestinian relationship. Rice extended her stay in Israel to work through the night on an agreement that gives the Palestinians control of the border between Gaza and Egypt.

Her persistence reflected the overdue reversal of the Bush administration's unwillingness to become deeply involved in the peace process. U.S. secretaries of State, especially Henry A. Kissinger and James A. Baker III, have been important players in finding common ground between the Israelis and the Arabs, including Palestinians. Their mere presence does not guarantee success, but personal persuasion and attention to details can break a stalemate.

Rice cannot be deeply involved at every step; President Clinton famously pored over maps of a planned Israeli withdrawal from occupied West Bank and Gaza in 2000 and did not broker an agreement. But the U.S. needs to keep pushing the Palestinians to disarm the terrorists in their midst, and the Israelis to stop allowing expansion of the West Bank settlements on land seized in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.

The European Union has agreed to provide monitors for the Gaza-Egypt crossing; they need to beware the smuggling of weapons and terrorists into the territory. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Sharon must realize that their election campaigns cannot be an excuse for paralyzing the overarching issue of the establishment of a Palestinian state and the steps needed on both sides to achieve that goal.

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