Abbas and Sharon move courageously toward peace

It has been a long time since anyone could seriously suggest the possibility of peace between the Israelis and Palestinians.
The Palestinians have a strong leader in Mahmoud Abbas, who has quickly showed that he is far more willing than his predecessor, Yasser Arafat, to confront radical elements among his allies. And Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, a hard-liner for a half century, has already made moves toward reconciliation that have his former supporters calling him a traitor.
To use a phrase from the American political lexicon, the men have shown a willingness to spend political capital. But in the Middle East, that is not an act of expediency, it is an act of bravery.
Sad lessons
It should be remembered that Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was assassinated by Islamic militants in 1981, four years after he took a bold move in seeking peace with Israel.
And Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by a right-wing Israeli two years after he shook hands in 1993 on the White House lawn with Arafat.
Arafat never demonstrated the level of commitment to peace of Sadat or Rabin. And while that almost certainly prolonged his life, it kept him from being a great leader.
But the very circumstances of the assassinations of Sadat and Rabin demonstrate how foolhardy it would be to attempt to read too much into the initial encouraging signs of the ceasefire agreed to by Abbas and Sharon.
To be sure, Sharon showed restraint after Hamas shelled an Israeli settlement in Gaza. And Abbas was decisive when he sacked high ranking members of the Palestinian security apparatus.
Encouraging signs
It is also encouraging that once again there is talk of the United States taking a more active role as an honest broker between the Palestinians and Israelis. The new U.S. security coordinator for the Middle East, Army Lt. Gen. William E. Ward, is to make his first trip to the region later this month.
And next week, NATO's Secretary-general, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, will go to Israel, a first for NATO's top diplomat.
But while encouraging things are happening fast, peace between two warring, distrustful factions will take years to evolve.
In the meantime, as they always have, radicals on both sides will do anything -- including, of course, assassination -- to scuttle the peace process.
Sharon and Abbas are leading the way, but they will need the support of millions of Israelis ands Palestinians to protect them and the peace process from those relatively small numbers of their countrymen who believe that there can be only a Greater Israel or only a Middle East without Jews.

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