- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 24, 2005

The Israeli Cabinet on Sunday cast a pair of historic votes that could go a long way toward determining the boundaries between Israel and a future state of Palestine. Following months of political battles on Israel’s political right — and, in particular, inside Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s hawkish-leaning Likud Party — the cabinet voted 17-5 in favor of a plan to dismantle 25 Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip and the northern West Bank. The evacuation of Gaza settlements is scheduled to begin July 20. At the same time, Mr. Sharon also won cabinet approval by a 20-1 vote of a revamped route for lsrael’s security barrier, cutting the amount of territory on the Israeli side of the line from 15 percent to 7 percent of the West Bank. The actions represent a drastic shift in Israeli political thinking.

Since Menachem Begin’s 1977 election victory brought Likud to power, there is arguably no Iiving Israeli who has done more to expand settlements than Mr. Sharon. On Sunday, however, the Israeli leader pushed through a plan that will uproot more than 8,000 Israelis and permit more than 1.3 million Palestinians in Gaza to live under Palestinian jurisdiction. The plan also would free hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in the West Bank from the burden of living under Israeli security control.

Mr. Sharon is drawing heavy criticism from settlers and their political allies, the most strident of whom brand him a traitor for his willingness to give up some West Bank settlements. Should he relinquish more outlying West Bank settlements — something most Israelis would probably accept, and that Mr. Sharon is likely to do in a final peace settlement with the Palestinians — the political outcry will be tremendous. This week, Mr. Sharon also released 500 Palestinian prisoners in a good-will gesture, and the Israeli military has ended its policy of demolishing the homes of Palestinian terrorists.

The critical question now is what Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is prepared to do. To his credit, Mr. Abbas has forcefully denounced terrorism and has begun to clamp down on the anti-Semitic incitement routinely heard on Palestinian airwaves. But the need for Mr. Abbas to act militarily against terrorism grows stronger every day. A senior Israeli military intelligence official told the Knesset Foreign Affairs Committee this week that terrorists are using the cease-fire negotiated by Mr. Abbas to continue to produce rockets and mortars with which to target Israel.

Thus far, the picture is mixed. Palestinian security forces have begun to arrest terrorists and are working to prevent arms smuggling from Egypt into Gaza. Still, the Palestinian security forces need to be more aggressive — and sooner rather than later.

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