THE IMPROVED prospect of Middle East peace is playing havoc with the politics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The leading candidate to succeed Yasser Arafat, former Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, is facing a challenge from an imprisoned popular leader of younger Palestinian activists. Marwan Barghouti's last-minute bid for the presidency of the Palestinian Authority threatens the united front presented just days ago by members of the main Palestinian faction who chose Mr. Abbas as their presidential candidate.
At the same time, the governing coalition of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is breaking up over a secular-religious budget dispute. To stay in power, Mr. Sharon will need to recruit the dovish Labor Party to his government. That would favor Mr. Sharon's plan to withdraw troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip, but provoke hard-liners in his party.
The power struggle on each side of this divide suggests a recognition that a peaceful resolution to the conflict may be possible and preferred. This renewed interest must be encouraged and supported. To that end, Palestinians must reject Mr. Barghouti's candidacy for president and compel him to withdraw from the race. A vote for him would be a vote for the status quo. Just as Mr. Sharon refused to deal with Mr. Arafat, he won't deal with Mr. Barghouti, who was convicted of plotting deadly attacks on Israeli citizens. He has said he won't free the 45-year-old Barghouti from prison.
Palestinian leaders, however, cannot ignore Mr. Barghouti or further alienate his supporters. Mr. Barghouti represents a group of disaffected youths that needs to be brought into the process, not shunned. Mr. Abbas, a former peace negotiator and moderate who criticized the violent uprising, made the right decision recently to hold elections within the Fatah party, a move that would give young members a shot at leadership posts.
Mr. Sharon's political problems are less likely to derail rapprochement with the Palestinians if he can convince his Likud Party to accept the opposition Labor Party as a coalition partner. The Labor Party supports the Gaza withdrawal, and the prime minister wants to see it through next year. To his credit, Mr. Sharon has agreed to accommodate Palestinian elections Jan. 9 and signaled he would work with the new leadership to coordinate a Gaza withdrawal. Mr. Abbas also has taken steps to show his credibility as a peace partner - he ordered Palestinian media to end broadcasts of incitement against Israel.
The death of Mr. Arafat last month created an opportunity to end a cycle of violence and recrimination that has killed hundreds of Israelis and thousands of Palestinians in the past five years. It's a chance neither side should pass up.