Two prominent Middle East experts have testified before the U.S. Congress about the opportunity for peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
Henry Kissinger was involved in Middle East issues as secretary of state under President Richard Nixon and in the administration of President Gerald Ford and his views are still highly respected.
He is optimistic Israelis and Palestinians can continue a process that has led to a declaration by Israel and the Palestinian Authority against violence.
"This is the best opportunity in several decades to achieve a decisive breakthrough, and such a breakthrough would have great consequence for the Middle East, for our relations with Europe, for the dignity and security [of] the peoples involved, and for the future of peace in the world," he said.
Mr. Kissinger says the death of Yasser Arafat, Israel's decision to withdraw from Gaza, and new activism by the Bush administration have all contributed to the improved situation.
Many lawmakers share this optimism. Congressman Henry Hyde is chairman of the House International Relations Committee.
"If we bring a good heart and a spirit of fairness to these negotiations, we just may help fashion the peace that the great globe itself has been longing for," he said.
But members of Congress are also cautious, given the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
California Democrat Tom Lantos warns against naïve euphoria, saying good intentions by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will not be sufficient.
"Mr. Abbas is an intelligent man and he surely knows that in the long run there is no such thing as a compromise with terrorists. He will either defeat the terrorists, or he will be defeated by them," he said.
Congressman Lantos says Palestinians have a chance to govern their own territory and demonstrate their ability to establish a functioning and orderly society. But he says Arab governments must step forward with financial assistance to Palestinians, and a real commitment to the peace process.
That is something Middle East expert and former ambassador Dennis Ross agrees with.
"We need a collection of Arab leaders to stand up and say, Abu Mazim [Mahmoud Abbas] is right, the violence is wrong, it will not produce a Palestinian state," he said. "We support what he is doing. We need them to do that, because we need them to raise the cost to [Palestinian radical terrorist groups such as] Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the al Aksa Martyr's Brigade, and others who may think about defecting from the Abu Mazim approach. We need to create an umbrella of legitimacy over the issue of non-violence behind what Abu Mazim is doing, to build support for him, it will strengthen his hand internally."
Mr. Kissinger says radical elements, from both sides, could threaten the peace process. But if momentum can be sustained, he believes it may be possible at some point to again attempt negotiations on final status issues such as the status of Jerusalem and right of [Palestinian] return.
"I do not think it is too ambitious to attempt final status negotiations, and to be more specific with respect to the 'road map,'" he said. " But I am assuming in making that statement that the European allies will agree to a constructive role and modify some of their positions and that moderate Arabs will continue to play the role they have apparently played at [the 1999 Israeli-Palestinian negotiations at] Sharm el Sheikh. If we can bring all these elements together, and only the United States could do that, then I think one can imagine final status negotiations proceeding."
Mr. Ross disagrees, saying while this is an important moment, the parties are not yet ready to tackle core issues. He also addressed what he calls the greatest single threat to Mahmoud Abbas, Iranian support for radical terrorist groups.
"The British, French and the Germans are in a negotiation right now with Iran. Iran underwrites Hezbollah to the tune of about $100 million a year. They are in a negotiation, we should be working with them not only on the nuclear issue but on this issue," he said. "The Europeans make it clear they care about the Israeli-Palestinian issue, if there is a chance to succeed, this issue has to be put on a central plane with the Iranians, and a spotlight has to be shone on it by the Europeans, not just by us, to raise the cost to what they're doing."
Among key questions at this stage, Mr. Ross says, is whether Mahmoud Abbas can use the mandate from the Palestinian election to bring radical groups into the peace process and keep them there.
Former Ambassador Ross says Israelis and Palestinians, and everyone seeking to help are in a race against time, adding that the United States must be a bridge for both sides between steps taken so far and implementation of the "road map" to peace.