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Making peace work

October 23, 2005

THE ROSE GARDEN STATEMENTS by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and President Bush on Thursday were familiar, and their sentiments worthy. But whether what passes for peace in Israel endures will be determined in Gaza and the West Bank. That picture remains unclear.

Israel completed the withdrawal of its settlers and troops from Gaza last month, ending decades of occupation. Abbas wants Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to do more, such as making it easier for Palestinians to travel between Gaza and the West Bank and disallowing more Israeli settlements in occupied land. Sharon, in turn, has demanded that Abbas disarm militant groups such as Hamas and stop Palestinian attacks on Israelis.

Both men await parliamentary elections next year and are unlikely to make bold moves before then. But that should not mean paralysis, especially because ending the battle between Israel and the Palestinians remains the key to Middle East peace.

The United States needs to remain heavily involved in the process. Bush heaped praise on Abbas on Thursday, hailing him as "a man devoted to peace" who has brought the Palestinians close to their goal -- now shared by the U.S. and Israel -- of a nation of their own. If Sharon's government and the U.S. empower Abbas by helping him succeed in improving the lot of Palestinians, it will undercut the appeal of Hamas. Abbas needs to be able to point to tangible payoffs for cooperating with Israel.

One goal should be reducing Palestinian unemployment. Among the 1.3 million residents of Gaza, nearly two of every three people live in poverty, and unemployment is well over 30%. The U.S. and European nations provide large amounts of money to the Palestinian Authority; Arab nations, which for decades have lamented the plight of the Palestinians and which are flush with petrodollars, could do far more. Gaza residents could earn money by removing the rubble of nearly five years of the armed uprising against Israel and building much-needed housing.

Bush was evenhanded in praising the Palestinians and Israel, and in reminding each of their promises under the "road map" to peace. But if Israel keeps adding to settlements and Abbas does not do more to disarm militant groups such as Hamas, the months of relative quiet since Yasser Arafat's death last year could end in renewed violence.

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