December 3, 2004

After Arafat, Despair and Hope

Nobody thought it would be easy to get back on the road to peace, and this week's maneuverings within the Israeli government and the Palestinian leadership are certainly pounding that point home. There's been plenty of din. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon ousted a coalition partner, the secular Shinui Party, and is cozying back up to Shimon Peres and the Labor Party, a move that will further alienate Likud hard-liners like Benjamin Netanyahu. Meanwhile, a fiery and charismatic leader of the uprising, Marwan Barghouti, has thrown the Palestinian Authority into a tizzy over his last-minute declaration of his candidacy for president. How Mr. Barghouti would govern from prison, where he is serving five life terms on terrorism convictions, is questionable, to say the least.

But amid the racket, signs of hope continue to emerge. While Yasir Arafat was alive, Mr. Sharon refused to have anything to do with him, and he said he would carry out the Israeli withdrawal from settlements in the Gaza Strip without consulting the Palestinian Authority. Viewed cynically, such a move would have given Mr. Sharon a perfect chance to make the withdrawal as difficult as possible for the Palestinians, and then shrug his shoulders when things didn't work out. But Mr. Sharon has apparently had a change of heart.

In recent days, he has indicated that he will coordinate the pullout with the Palestinian Authority. The subtext here probably refers to a Palestinian Authority with the moderate Mahmoud Abbas as its head after the election. And while the last thing Mr. Abbas needs is an endorsement from Mr. Sharon, Israel can help his cause by showing right now that it is willing to make concessions to Palestinian leaders who distance themselves from terrorism.

Mr. Abbas, who is the chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, says that he has ordered the government-controlled media to stop broadcasting material that could incite hatred against Israel. If Mr. Abbas's directive is actually followed, that means no more fiery broadcasts praising the killing of Jews. There's a lot more the Palestinians have to do to get serious about stopping the suicide bombings and other attacks, but that would be a start.

There are also signs that Mr. Barghouti's late registration as a candidate is drawing disfavor from some of those who were once thought to be his most likely supporters. Mr. Barghouti, 45, who is in prison for his role in deadly attacks, is seen as more popular with young Palestinians than Mr. Abbas, who is 69. If Mr. Barghouti cannot be a serious candidate, perhaps he can serve those young Palestinians by withdrawing his candidacy in exchange for the democratic reforms he says he favors in the Palestinian Authority.

For now, it appears that both the Israelis and the Palestinians are hanging on tight to the recent lull in attacks and counterattacks. Could it be that maybe both sides do want peace?

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company