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Abbas' election offers hope for peace in the Middle East



Published: Mon, January 10, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



Once again events in the Middle East have conspired to provide a glimmer of hope for peace.

And, as always, the greatest impediment to peace will be the extremists on both sides -- those Palestinians who believe that Israel has no right to exist and those Israelis who believe that a larger, greater Israel is their nation's destiny.

Sunday's election of Mahmoud Abbas as Palestinian Authority president by a wide margin means he will come to the negotiating table with a new level of credibility. On the other side of the table, there is likely to be a more moderate Israeli face, as well, since Israel's parliament is expected to approve a coalition in which Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will govern side-by-side with Shimon Peres, leader of the moderate Labor Party.

It had become clear in recent years that peace would not be reached between two old war horses, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Sharon. Arafat died Nov. 11 in a Paris hospital after months of illness and years of being marginalized by Sharon.

Abbas, on the other hand, is a man who even Sharon thinks he can work with. "I think this vote shows a change in the Palestinian street" moving away from support of violence, said Sharon aide Raanan Gissin, himself a hard-line former soldier.

U.S. must step up

It is time for the United States to become more actively involved in the peace process.

President Bush, who has said elections are the key to democracy and democracy is the key to peace, should offer the United States as a broker between the elected representatives of the Palestinian people and Israel.

These talks are going to need guidance.

There are deal-breakers just waiting to emerge on either side. Perhaps the greatest of those is the concept of a right to return for Palestinian refugees and their descendants. Tens of thousands of Palestinians left Israel after it was created in 1948 by the United Nations. Israel maintains that they left voluntarily, at the urging of Arab neighbors who vowed the drive the Israelis into the sea.

The Palestinians maintain that they were forced from their homeland and should be guaranteed a right to return.

There is no way that Israel will agree to that, and for a fundamental reason. Israel was founded as a Jewish state. Recognizing a right of return would create a demographic certainty: At some point, Palestinians would outnumber Jews. Israel would either cease to exist as a Jewish state, or it would be a state in which a minority Jewish population managed to maintain control of the state.

The only hope for peace is the establishment, as President Bush has recognized, of a legitimate Palestinian state existing side-by-side with Israel.

Sunday's election may have made that possible, if all agree on realistic, fundamental goals and work toward those.




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