Positive signs

THE BALTIMORE SUN

PALESTINIAN President Mahmoud Abbas is taking his job seriously -- believe it. He's shown that by forging the beginnings of a cease-fire agreement with the Islamic militant group Hamas, deploying Palestinian security forces in parts of Gaza and, most remarkably, demolishing illegal houses in Gaza City. The latter is a first for a Palestinian leader. Israel is responding just as seriously: It has taken the extraordinary step of ceasing its targeted assassinations of militants. If each side upholds its commitments, a real shift in Israeli-Palestinian relations may be under way. And what welcome news that would be, after four years of diplomatic silence and a barrage of suicide bombings, mortar attacks and army reprisals.

The actions by each side are signs that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Mr. Abbas are intent on moving this process forward, including resuming negotiations. But it's not up to them alone -- not by a long shot. Mr. Abbas' tentative agreement with Hamas -- the militant group responsible for much of the violence in the last four years -- is conditioned on a reorganization of the Palestinian governing authority. Hamas and other militant groups want to be involved in any negotiated agreement with Israel. Their membership in a governing authority would be a first since they have refused repeatedly in the past to enter the political arena. That's changing, though: Hamas has fielded candidates in local elections this week.

The other cease-fire condition -- and one more difficult to meet -- would require Israel to end its military operations in the Palestinian territories. The militants want international guarantees on Israeli compliance. That would undoubtedly fall to the United States. A Bush administration envoy now in the region should fully explore this issue with Israeli officials and try to meet their needs.

It wouldn't take much -- a scared soldier, rogue militants, defiant settlers -- to sabotage any determined effort to resolve this ongoing conflict. That has been proved repeatedly in the past. Both leaders must show restraint and proceed with caution. But Israelis finally have a peace partner in Mr. Abbas. And Palestinians now have a leader with a realistic outlook on how to gain their independence. They shouldn't get in his way.

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