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A leaderless people

THE PAST decade of Marwan Barghouti's life parallels the emotional trajectory of the Palestinian people since the prospect of peace first surfaced in Oslo. From hope and exhilaration to despair and defiance, their aspirations have turned on an end to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Earlier this month, an Israeli court sentenced Mr. Barghouti to several life prison terms for terrorist activity. It was a glaring reminder of the collapse of the Palestinian Authority and a dearth of leadership that have prevented a return to the peace process. Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat recently lobbied the Bush administration about the urgency of holding local, regional and national elections. He sees elections as essential to rekindling Palestinian hopes for an end to the turmoil of the past four years. "We are so ready for it," he says.

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We don't doubt his assertion. But the prospects of political change -- and reform -- seem dim. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is an aging autocrat whose government has been rife with corruption. Israel won't deal with him; neither will the Bush administration. Before the Oslo peace accords collapsed with the resumption of a Palestinian terror campaign in 2000, a few of Mr. Arafat's contemporaries were considered possible successors. But they have either resigned their posts or been marginalized by the conflict. A younger generation of leaders, including elected Palestinian legislators, has been imprisoned or neutralized by the ongoing struggle. Mr. Barghouti's story is illustrative of theirs.

A respected student leader twice deported for his anti-occupation activities, Mr. Barghouti arrived home in the West Bank in the early 1990s to help Mr. Arafat build a democratic state alongside Israel. A political moderate, he ardently supported the 1993 Oslo treaty. But as the peace process faltered under the heavy hand of Israeli governments and the horror of Palestinian terrorism, Mr. Barghouti tended toward rebellion. In the last four years, he promoted the resistance that brought Israeli tanks back to the West Bank. He claimed not to actively encourage the violence, but Mr. Barghouti earned a spot on Israel's most wanted list. He was convicted of participating in terrorist plots and sentenced to five consecutive life terms.

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Palestinians deserve a state of their own. But first they need talented, responsible leaders who will encourage democratic institutions. The Bush administration has relinquished its responsibility to bring Israelis and Palestinians together in peace and has surrendered its stewardship of the conflict to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

President Bush urges support of a democratic Middle East, and that's fine for speeches. But to further that goal he should be using the Palestinian territories as a laboratory for nation-building and marshaling the international community to develop the leadership Palestinians so desperately need to win a state.


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