- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 28, 2003

As he prepares for Wednesday’s peace summit involving President Bush and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has been sending one signal after another about his desire to work out a peace agreement based on some form of territorial compromise involving the West Bank. On Sunday, Mr. Sharon persuaded his hawkish-leaning cabinet, following a contentious debate, to vote 12-7 with four abstentions in favor of President Bush’s road map for Middle East peace. The following day, Mr. Sharon — who is more closely associated with the building of West Bank settlements than any other Israeli politician — declared his determination to end Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza — lands captured by Israel in a defensive war in June 1967. “To keep 3.5 million people under occupation is bad for us and them,” the Israeli leader bluntly informed Likud Party activists. “This can’t continue endlessly. Do you want to remain forever in Ramallah, Jenin, Nablus?” At the same time, though, Mr. Sharon has left himself room to pull back from the peace process if the Palestinians refuse to fulfill their part of the bargain.

For example, if Palestinian terrorism against Israel continues unabated, he said, there will be no territorial concessions. And no Israeli government — whether run by Mr. Sharon’s Likud Party on the right or the opposition Labor Party on the left — is prepared to accept the “right of return” of up to several million Palestinian refugees to to Israel, something Israelis view as a formula for their country’s destruction. Yet, another cautionary note is in order: No one should be surprised if, in the coming weeks, as the peace process has its ups and downs, Mr. Sharon, (looking to mute opposition from the political right), makes some comments emphasizing the strategic and historical importance of settlements.

But, absent a war or a catastrophic terror attacks, Mr. Sharon, long a dedicated advocate of territorial expansion, has crossed a political point of no return. If 10 years of the Oslo peace process (including 32 months of war) have achieved anything, it’s been to persuade virtually all Israelis, and the Israeli right in particular, of the need to share the land west of the Jordan River with an independent Palestinian state.

While Israelis have been persuaded of the need for territorial compromise, the Palestinian stance is much more ambiguous. While Mr. Abbas appears to be a relatively pragmatic sort, he continues to advocate political non-starters like the right of return, and only time will tell whether he has the capability of standing up to rejectionists like Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat or terrorist groups like the Al Aksa Martyrs Brigade, Hamas and Islamic Jihad. In an effort to undermine Mr. Abbas, Mr. Arafat — the man chiefly responsible for the violence that has cost several thousand Israeli and Palestinian lives since September 2000 — is attempting to undercut Mr. Abbas by insisting that he, and not Mr. Abbas, is in charge of negotiations with Israel. For the summit to be a success, it is more important than ever for the Bush administration to make it clear to its Arab and European allies that they do the negotiations no favors by lending legitimacy to Mr. Arafat, who has become a leading saboteur of Mideast peace.

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