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A peaceful feeling?

September 12, 2006

THE PROSPECTS FOR PEACE in the Middle East have been so grim for so long that even the faintest glimmers of good news -- including a reported drop in the Baghdad murder rate in August that later proved to be exaggerated -- get more attention in the West than they probably deserve. Still, the last two days have seen more movement to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian crisis than the previous six months, which is good news by any standard.

On Sunday, at the urging of outgoing British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas agreed to meet, without conditions. Planned talks in June had been derailed by the capture of an Israeli soldier by Palestinian militants, and until now each side had refused to come back to the table unless the other agreed to release prisoners.

Even more positive was an agreement Monday by the radical Islamic group Hamas, which took control of the Palestinian government after soundly defeating the secular party Fatah in January's elections, to form a government of national unity with its rival. That could be a huge step forward if it means that Hamas has signed on to the concept of a two-state solution, implicitly recognizing Israel's right to exist.

Hamas is clearly buckling under the pressure of punishing economic sanctions by the U.S. and Europe over the last six months, and Israel has refused to hand over hundreds of millions of dollars in taxes it has collected on the Palestinians' behalf. Though Hamas has reportedly managed to smuggle in millions of dollars, government workers have been getting by with little or no pay for months, a severe problem in a region where the government is by far the largest employer. Early this month, tens of thousands of public-sector workers went on strike, threatening the Hamas regime with collapse.

For the U.S. and Europe, the question is what to do about those sanctions. The Europeans can be expected to advocate dropping them as quickly as possible, although the U.S. and Israel insist that they be maintained until the Palestinians meet the conditions established by the international community: renounce violence, recognize Israel's right to exist and accept all previous peace agreements. There is some question whether Hamas itself will adopt these positions, or simply be part of a government that does.

Either way, it is an encouraging step. And if Hamas is not rewarded for making this conciliatory move, it will be discouraged from making any more. But the status and policies of the unity government remain unclear. As the government makes concrete steps toward peace, it should get real economic benefits. Moving too quickly, as the Europeans favor, or too slowly, as the Americans and Israelis tend to do, could extinguish this latest glimmer of hope.

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