Prospects for peace in Mideast looking brighter than before

Posted: Wednesday, April 23, 2003

There are several reasons to be encouraged about the prospects for a breakthrough in the Mideast peace process.

The most obvious reason is that terrorism seems to have subsided amid positive reactions on both sides toward the American-supported "road map" to Palestinian statehood. There was a suicide bombing in an Israeli cafe last week, but nobody died other than the terrorist himself -- and that was the first act of terrorism since early March.

It could be that the U.S. military victory in Iraq made the terrorists a little less bold. Maybe, also, it's because Saddam Hussein no longer is around to hand out $25,000 rewards to the families of suicide bombers. Another possibility is that both sides are tired of the bloodshed and want their misery, like that of the Iraqis, finally to end.

Israel is being asked to give up some land and agree to Palestinian statehood by 2005 in exchange for peace.

For that plan to work, however, the murders of Israelis must stop. That may not be easy as long as Islamic militants continue to wield influence over many young Palestinians.

An agreement won't be worth much unless the Palestinian government punishes the sponsors of homicide bombings --and also arrests those who have committed other acts of

terrorism and survived.

For a long time, there has been a suspicion that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat knew where the troublemakers were and could have rounded them up -- but deliberately chose not to to do it.

If Arafat indeed is an obstacle, however, it may be removed soon. He has agreed to a power-sharing arrangement in which he is to be a figurehead, in charge of foreign policy, while a prime minister takes charge of internal affairs. That prime minister is to be Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen.

Widely regarded as the architect of the failed Oslo peace process, Abbas has been an outspoken critic of Palestinian violence -- and he recently asked Fatah members to be introspective, "reviewing the mistakes we have made, where we are headed."

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon refuses to deal with Arafat but has offered to give up land -- some of it having biblical and historical significance to Jews -- if he and Abbas can negotiate an agreement.

If Abbas turns out to be little more than a "front man" for Arafat and the Arabs remain determined to destroy Israel, all bets are off.

But if Abbas really wields power, particularly in the area of law enforcement, he may be able to create a peaceable climate in which rational minds can prevail -- something that hasn't happened in the Middle East for a half-century.

--Florida Times-Union, Jacksonville

April 21



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