The Baltimore Sun

An opportunity in the Mideast

November 12, 2004

NO OTHER event in recent history provides Palestinians with the chance to transform their political landscape like the death of Yasser Arafat. With his passing yesterday in France, Palestinians have been freed from the constraints of his one-man rule, polarizing personality and failed leadership. As they eulogize the guerrilla patron of their nationalist cause, Palestinians should reflect on the cost of violence and terror in the past four years and the thousands who have died in the uprising against the Israeli occupation. In the days ahead, they should renounce violence in their fight for a state and insist on leaders who will secure it with diplomacy.

The choices for Palestinians are difficult. Several possible successors to Mr. Arafat come from the late president's ranks, an old guard that many Palestinians view as corrupt. But the value of their experience and knowledge can't be dismissed. Younger leaders need to be developed, encouraged -- and included -- in a reformed Palestinian Authority.

Israelis also have a unique opportunity. Theirs is a chance to change the dynamic of retribution that has sent suicide bombers into Israel again and again, killing nearly 1,000 since the fall of 2000. Moderate Israelis must reassert themselves in the political process and the national dialogue dominated by the hard-liners. Gone now is Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's excuse that he has no credible Palestinian peace partner. Those Israelis who seek a secure, sustained peace must press the Sharon government to support Palestinian moderates who come to power.

Mr. Sharon did next to nothing to assist the first Palestinian prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, during his short tenure. It's a mistake Mr. Sharon shouldn't repeat. Mr. Abbas, a former peace negotiator known as Abu Mazen, was named chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization after Mr. Arafat's death. Make no mistake: The 69-year-old moderate will remain a player in the struggle for an independent Palestine, whether as an elected official or the powerful head of the PLO.

The choices ahead are not solely those of Palestinians and Israelis. As Palestinians begin a 40-day mourning period after Mr. Arafat's burial, the Bush administration may opt to remain uninvolved. But that would be the wrong choice. It should develop a plan to hold and oversee Palestinian elections and insist on Israeli cooperation to carry them out. President Bush's plan for a democratic Middle East will be meaningless without a democratic presence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

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