Mideast tipping point

ISRAELIS AND Palestinians may be entering one of those transformational periods when old patterns break down and peacemakers have a chance to rescue both peoples from their dance of death.

In the past few days, Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon; Mahmoud Abbas, the pragmatic candidate to succeed Yasser Arafat as head of the Palestinian Authority; and Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak have all said and done things that suggest a willingness to make the most of a new situation in the Middle East. The most dramatic difference has been the decline in violence since Nov. 11, the day Arafat died. That change on the ground has been accompanied by gestures from each side that are plainly meant to encourage moderation on the other side.

Sharon, who said yesterday he is preparing for "fateful decisions" and plans to invite the Labor Party into "a broad and stable coalition," disclosed that there have already been contacts with Palestinians in Abbas's circle and that he hopes to renew high-level talks after the Palestinian election Jan. 9. Until then, Sharon said, Israel will reduce its military actions in response to a decrease in Palestinian armed attacks and will ease harsh restrictions in the the West Bank and Gaza in the run-up to elections there. Sharon has also agreed not to stop Palestinians in East Jerusalem from voting.

As long as Arafat was alive, Sharon had argued that Israel had no partner for peace. With Abbas as chairman of the PLO and favored to be elected president of the Palestinian Authority, that argument is no longer valid. Abbas has denounced the militarized Palestinian campaign against Israel that began in the fall of 2000 as a disaster. He is calling for peace talks and a revival of the road map to a two-state solution, and this week he met a Sharon condition for renewed talks by ordering the Palestinian Authority-controlled radio and television to cease their incitement of hatred against Israelis.

For his part, Mubarak encouraged Palestinians to recognize that Sharon "is capable of pursuing peace, and he is capable of reaching solutions." Mubarak said Sharon is "ready to do what the Palestinians want, to facilitate the elections and help in removing the checkpoints. He only asks for one thing: the end of the explosions so they can work together on a solid basis."

The indispensable party yet to be heard from is President Bush. By temperament and talent he may not be suited to play the role of a hands-on mediator himself. But he could appoint an experienced hand such as former secretary of state James Baker or Baker's erstwhile envoy to the region, Dennis Ross. The opportunity exists to achieve something that could do more for US security than any missile defense. This is the time for Bush to invest some of the political capital he has boasted of winning. 

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