Fri, Jun. 11, 2004

A momentous step in the Middle East

The news that Israel will offer financial incentives to Jewish settlers who leave the Gaza Strip voluntarily is a positive sign that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon fully intends to follow through on the evacuation of that conflicted parcel of land. The decision to leave Gaza has already cost the Israeli leader dearly by causing deep fractures within his ruling coalition and generating accusations of betrayal from the settler movement.

Even so, he seems determined to plow ahead because it had become evident to all but the most irreconcilable diehards that the settlements could not endure.

The pitfalls of the disengagement plan are all too obvious. The most disturbing is the possibility that Gaza can become a haven for Hamas and other Islamic terrorists. That's why the decision by Egypt to support the move by stepping up its security presence along the border with Gaza and sending Egyptians into Gaza to train their security counterparts should be applauded.

The Egyptians are sending a signal that the Israeli move, far from being some sort of devious plan, is a welcome development that deserves the support of all Arabs who want to see a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Most significant, it suggests that, after a period of ambivalence, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak now attaches more importance to good relations with Israel than to the complaints of Islamic hard-liners.

Mr. Sharon's decision was no doubt difficult for a man known as the godfather of the settler movement. In the end, however, he came to realize that the desires of 7,500 settlers cannot drive either Israeli policy or Israel's security needs.

To assuage hard-liners, Mr. Sharon agreed to take a separate Cabinet vote before dismantling the 21 settlements in Gaza early next year. We hope that in the ensuing period, he can muster the needed support to persuade Israeli leaders that the disengagement from Gaza is in Israel's best interest.

For more than half a century, Israelis and Palestinians have waged an unceasing battle for control of the precious land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean.

Now that Israel has decided to abandon territory unilaterally, a momentous step by any reckoning, Palestinians should seize the moment to demonstrate their political maturity by accepting this as a positive move. U.S. leadership and the help of allies such as Egypt can shepherd the two sides into negotiations. Ultimately, however, only Israelis and Palestinians can find a resolution for their own conflict.