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Peace in the Middle East Seems to Have a Fresh Start

This week Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas announced a ceasefire -- after a face-to-face summit meeting the Egyptian resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh. Amy Katz takes a look at why the long-stalled Middle East peace process seems to be gaining steam again, and whether it has a chance to succeed.

Before Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice left on her multi-nation tour, U.S. President George W. Bush said he is looking forward to separate White House meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the coming months.

At his first Cabinet meeting of the year, he also said the new Palestinian leader's election and his commitment to fighting terrorism have improved the chances for peace in the Middle East.

"I have been impressed by his public statements. I have also been impressed by the fact that Israel helped the Palestinians have an election, went out of their way to make sure people were allowed to go to the polls. The meetings just indicate there is more work to be done, and I look forward to meeting with them," said President Bush.

According to the White House those meetings are expected to take place in March or April. Condoleezza Rice laid the groundwork for those talks during her visit to the region. During that trip she met with Prime Minister Sharon, and encouraged Israel to go through with Mr. Sharon's Gaza withdrawal plan. She also met with Palestinian Authority President Abbas, and encouraged the Palestinians to fight terror. She cautioned both the Israelis and Palestinians to make good on their promises.

"This is a hopeful time, but it is also a time of great responsibility for all of us to make certain that we act on the words that we speak," said Dr. Rice.

Experts say the renewed interest in reviving the Middle East peace process started with the death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Paul Scham of the Washington, DC-based Middle East Institute says the chances for peace changed dramatically with the election of Mr. Abbas as the new Palestinian Authority President. "The Palestinian people are exhausted by this, by the Intifada of the last four and a half years. There’s a lot of brave rhetoric, but there's generally a recognition that it has not accomplished very much and to continue going will probably not do very much," said Mr. Scham.

Judy Barsalou of the U.S. Institute for Peace echoes that thought. "There's a real sense of crisis that has emerged. They're (the Palestinians) just sick and tired of living under occupation. They're sick and tired of closures and the road blocks and all the other things that they contend with and I think that they're really ready for a change."

She also says Mr. Abbas has a different approach than that of his predecessor, Mr. Arafat, which the U.S. and Europe view in a better light.

"So it does create an atmosphere in which, you know, there is a greater chance of some forward progress," said Dr. Barasalou.

Mr. Scham says the promised ceasefires and the overall current climate could lead to peace, but both sides need to keep their expectations realistic.

"It really depends on the willingness of the populations of the two sides, not just the leaders, to stay the course and to recognize that they will have to compromise in the long run, but in the short run, things will continue happening that they don't like," said Mr. Scham.

Dr. Barsalou says President Bush's vision of a Palestinian state living side by side with Israel in peace is possible to achieve -- but probably not quite yet.

"I think what a lot of people are hoping for is eventually a place reached by both sides whether they can live in peace and harmony with each other, and have economically viable and secure societies on both sides. I think we've got a long, long ways to go before we get to that point," said Dr. Barasalou.

As Dr. Barsalou points out, making peace between the Israelis and Palestinians requires a secure environment. To facilitate that, Secretary of State Rice announced the appointment U.S. Army Lieutenant General William Ward, to be a special "security coordinator" for the peace process.