Hope that this time, it's different


JERUSALEM - Hopeful times have been here before.

It was just 18 months ago when Mahmoud Abbas, then the Palestinian prime minister, stood with his Israeli counterpart, Ariel Sharon, and talked of a new day in which political dialogue would supplant violence.

Two months later, in September 2003, Abbas resigned, saying Israel, the United States and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat had undermined his authority. An Israeli-Palestinian cease-fired dissolved, Sharon refused to meet with Abbas' successor and hope quickly turned into despair.

Now, Arafat is dead and Abbas has returned, this time as Arafat's elected replacement as president of the Palestinian Authority. Both sides are gearing up for another cease-fire, preparing again for Israeli troops to withdraw from Palestinian cities and talking again of a new day.

What makes this new day so different from the others?

Arafat's death in November created genuinely new opportunities, Israelis and Palestinians say, by removing from the scene a figure who leaders on both sides had come to regard as an obstacle to significant change.

"The main difference between now and a few years ago is that a lot of decision-makers in Israel believe that Abbas really would like to end the conflict," said Boaz Ganor, executive director of the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism in Herzliya.

"Israel has proven time and again that when they have the belief that their enemy is sincere, they are willing to make concessions," he said. "We never believed that Yasser Arafat wanted to end the conflict."

People also seem tired of violence that brought only misery.

A poll published yesterday in Israel's Maariv newspaper reported that 62 percent of the Israelis surveyed wanted the army to refrain from killing wanted Palestinian militants if doing so would preserve even an unofficial cease-fire.

"For a long time, the accepted wisdom was that the thirst for the blood of terrorists was insatiable," the newspaper said of the survey results. "The present poll shows that after three and a half years of conflict, the yearning for quiet has overcome the thirst for vengeance."

Yesterday, the Israeli army announced that its troops have been ordered to curtail operations in the West Bank and Gaza, formalizing what government aides had been saying for days. The orders came as 2,000 armed Palestinian police deployed in southern Gaza, adding to thousands elsewhere in Gaza.

"Proactive [army] operations in the Gaza Strip will cease in areas in which Palestinian security forces have re-deployed and in which terror activities against Israeli civilians and [army] forces have been stopped," the army said.

Military officials also said that Gaza's three crossing terminals that were closed after attacks are to reopen and that checkpoints that blocked roads will be removed. There also are new limits on the army's practice of hunting militants.

"The chief of staff has ordered that the [army] targeting of terrorists will take place only if there is an immediate threat by active terrorist cells, and only with his explicit authorization," the army said.

On Thursday, Sharon talked of a "historic breakthrough in relations." Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told reporters that a "new chapter" was opening between the two sides.

Even pessimists are cautiously optimistic that realities will match the positive rhetoric.

"I saw only one factor creating terror, and that was Yasser Arafat," Ganor said. "Now he has disappeared and there is for the first time a chance for a real change in the Palestinian arena. Arafat had cease-fires, but just to gain concession from Israel. Abbas is using the same tactic, but not with bad intentions."

Other factors could still block progress.

Last year, Sharon announced plans to withdraw all troops and Jewish settlements from Gaza, a proposal that split his Likud Party. Even after adding the left-of-center Labor Party to his coalition, Sharon still lacks a comfortable majority in parliament, where more than a dozen Likud members are in revolt.

Abbas, too, faces political challenges, especially from the militant Islamic group Hamas. It won an overwhelming victory Thursday in municipal elections in Gaza at the expense of Abbas' Fatah party, taking 77 of 118 council seats.

A lasting cease-fire, however, would give Abbas time to begin rebuilding the Palestinian Authority and win greater public support, especially if Israel withdraws more troops and releases more Palestinian prisoners.

Some Palestinian officials, including Hannah Nasser, mayor of Bethlehem, caution that things could quickly change for the worse. Israeli troops have withdrawn from Bethlehem three times in the past two years, only to return after attacks on Israel. And Israel's barrier wall between Bethlehem and Jerusalem divides land and neighborhoods.

"All these changes we keep hearing about are cosmetic," Nasser said yesterday. "We are totally scared. Living in this city is becoming more difficult, and we are going to suffer more."

"The majority of us do not believe peace is coming," the mayor said. "Of course we want a better life and we see that what Abbas has done so far is pretty good. But will the Israeli side go to the end of the road with us or not?"

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