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New Era of Opportunity for Israel and the Palestinians

A historic breakthrough that might lead to an end of the bloodshed is possible, says Fawaz Gerges, professor of Middle Eastern and international affairs at Sarah Lawrence College in New York.

Mr. Gerges says, “this is the beginning of a highly complex journey. It is very messy, risky and extremely unpredictable.”

Since the breakdown of talks at Camp David four years ago, the conflict has left more than three thousand Palestinians and over one thousand Israelis dead. But with new Palestinian leadership emerging after the death of Yasser Arafat and a second term for U.S. President Bush, Mr. Gerges and many other analysts believe this is a watershed moment.

In an unusual overture, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said he is ready to coordinate a pullout from the Gaza Strip with a future Palestinian government and foresees what he calls possible 'years of peace.' Most analysts agree that recent statements by the Palestinian presidential frontrunner Mahmoud Abbas, reflect a change in tone on the part of the Palestinian Authority. Mr. Abbas said the armed uprising against Israel was a mistake, and that any resistance against Israeli occupation should be through non-violent means.

However, Mr. Abbas's position will need to be reinforced if he is to confront militant groups that attack Israelis, according to Steve Yetiv, professor of political science at Old Dominion University in Virginia.

Mr. Yetiv says, “I think it is somewhat pointless to move ahead with a serious peace process until Mr. Abbas, who appears to be the leader in the January 9th elections, is strengthened. Mr. Abbas is not going to crack down on extremists if he does not have strength, and the Israelis who have fallen out of the peace process because of insecurity are not going to trust Mr. Abbas unless he is stronger.”

Mr. Yetiv adds that Israel can make some concessions that would fortify Mr. Abbas. Paul Scham, an Israeli-Arab scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, agrees, saying Israel should no longer require that all terrorist attacks stop before it comes to the negotiating table with the Palestinians.

“The fact is that these attacks will probably continue,” says Mr. Scham. “To demand absolute quiet from the Palestinians means that nothing will go anywhere. The Israeli government and the Israeli people recognize that to suspend everything at that point would empower the terrorists.”

With the possibility of continuing bloodshed on both sides not being ruled out, Sarah Lawrence College's Fawaz Gerges says the best chance for sustained peace in the Middle East rests on decisive U.S. presidential leadership.

“The intervention of the United States is crucial,” says Mr. Gerges, “ not only to enable the emerging Palestinian leadership to rebuild their political and security institutions, but also to impress on the Israeli interest that it is in their own vital interest that a settlement based on two viable states living side by side is achieved. Most importantly, after the elections, the United States must actively engage in peace making.”

Mr. Gerges notes the United States took a hands-off approach to the conflict in the last couple of years. U.S. officials described the late Palestinian President Yasser Arafat as an obstacle to peace, accusing him of backing militant attacks against Israel. But with the election of new Palestinian leadership, President Bush says he will make resolving the Middle East conflict a top priority, reiterating his goal of establishing a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

The United States is donating about $25,000,000 to help the Palestinian Authority carry out the January elections. The European Union and the international community at large have also offered millions of dollars in aid, and will be sending international observers to monitor the elections.

Old Dominion University's Steve Yetiv says other countries, particularly neighboring Arab states, should go even further to support Mahmoud Abbas and the peace process. He says recent gestures by Egypt are positive developments.

Mr. Yetiv says, “they did not react negatively to the Israeli idea of withdrawing from Gaza and they seem to be willing to play a caretaker role after the withdrawal. They are supportive of Abbas though he is generally more moderate than the other key actors on the Palestinian scene.”

As a result, many observers are cautiously optimistic, even though they concede that some extreme elements on both sides do not want peace. But with substantial U.S. involvement and world support, they say peace in the Middle East is possible in 2005.