Giving peace a chance


OF ALL THE comments made during the Palestinian presidential election and since, the words of Fathi Kamal, a 53-year-old taxi driver casting his ballot in Ramallah, may be the most apt reflection of the mood of his people.

"I came because I want change," Mr. Kamal told the Associated Press.

What Mr. Kamal meant, I expect, is that he does not begin every day of his life with a prayer for the elimination of Israel, that he wants to go about his business and prosper, without interference from Israel or from the Palestinian Authority. He wants to feed his family and keep them healthy. I also expect that he wants a good, uninterrupted education for his children. For the Palestinians treasure education. Education is what sets them apart from many others in the Arab world. It is what enables them to participate enthusiastically and sensibly in the exercise of democracy, as they did this weekend.

One can only assume that Mr. Kamal feels this way, but the assumption is drawn from the knowledge that the vast majority of Palestinians essentially want peace and prosperity, apart from those who are so heavily invested in the violence and corruption that has gripped them for much of the last decade. It's true, too, that the majority of Israelis want peace and prosperity. The average Israeli does not awaken with the desire to kill Palestinians. They want to live in peace and they treasure education just as the Palestinians do.

The two peoples have so much in common it's astonishing in a way that they've been at each other's throats for so long.

With the election of Mahmoud Abbas as president of the Palestinian Authority, an opportunity exists for real desires and aspirations of the majority of both peoples to be fulfilled. But every party with its hand in the conflict and the peace process needs to nurture the opportunity as carefully as it would a newborn child.

Mr. Abbas faces the most difficult challenge. He has to contend with militant extremists such as Hamas in the hope that the group that refused to participate in the election will not destroy the hopes created by its results by launching attacks against Israelis. He also has to contend with the painful rivalries that exist among factions of his own Palestine Liberation Organization, not only in the dispute over the usefulness of militancy, but also over control of the Palestinian treasury, which was so abused under Yasser Arafat.

Mr. Abbas has been saying the right things. Unlike Mr. Arafat, Mr. Abbas dresses like a statesman, not like an unreconstructed guerrilla fighter. Both the Israelis and the Americans consider him a moderate and a potential partner for peace.

The United States, more heavily invested in the Middle East than ever before, has a responsibility to use its influence and its vast resources to support Mr. Abbas in its own desire to restore the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Israel's reaction to the election of Mr. Abbas has been cautiously positive. Of course, a single act of violence against Israel directed by extremists whom Mr. Abbas does not control could change the Israeli reaction immediately. Israel can strengthen Mr. Abbas' position by signaling a genuine desire to return to the negotiating table. One way to do this would be a release of Palestinian prisoners.

But what if Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon were to make a really bold gesture of the sort that really creates breakthroughs? What if he were to propose a face-to-face meeting with Mr. Abbas to demonstrate that Israel wishes to talk with the Palestinian leadership, now that Yasser Arafat is dead and replaced?

What if he were to say to Mr. Abbas in such a meeting, "Your people and my people have lived in this land from the beginning of time and we must find a way to do so peacefully. What can I do to help you?"

And what if Mr. Abbas were to reply, "Enough violence. My people and your people want to live in peace. What can I do to help you?"

Never happen? Possibly not, but consider some other never-happens: Israel made peace with Egypt, made peace with Jordan and allowed the PLO to return to the West Bank and Gaza.

The majority of Palestinians and the majority of Israelis want peaceful coexistence. They have too much in common for it not to happen. Besides, they have nowhere else to go.

G. Jefferson Price III is a former editor and foreign correspondent for The Sun.

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