A needed U.S. presence


THE ARRIVAL of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Jerusalem comes at a precarious time in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Palestinian Authority's agreement with militants not to attack Israel has imploded in the wake of a suicide bombing and Israel's understandably strong counteroffensive. The relative quiet of the past five months has vanished, and Ms. Rice has an unenviable but critical task - to help ensure an orderly withdrawal of Israeli troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip in the weeks ahead.

This will be difficult because Ms. Rice has no control over the process and no influence over the two groups that could most complicate Israel's move and its aftermath - the Islamic Resistance Movement (better known as Hamas) and the West Bank religious settlers. But her involvement signals the determined interest of the U.S. in moving the process forward, which would redraw the map of the disputed territories for the first time since the demise of the Oslo peace accords.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has faced several days of protests from thousands of settlers vowing to march into Gaza in defiance of a military closure order. Their demonstrations, if they continue, would engage Israeli soldiers needed to carry out the mid-August removal of 8,500 settlers. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who negotiated the February cease-fire with militants, has his own troubles. Hamas' firing of rockets into southern Israel has destabilized the situation and undermined the president's image. Recent clashes between Palestinian security forces and militants in Gaza show that Mr. Abbas is trying to control the streets, as he must to facilitate an orderly pullout.

Israel won't and shouldn't withdraw under fire. But it also has to brief Mr. Abbas on its plans to ensure a smooth transition. Mr. Abbas has the obligation of persuading the Palestinian factions to cooperate, but they too must realize the opportunity presented in the evacuation of the Gaza settlements and not sabotage the chance at self-rule.

Too often in this struggle, as the prospects for change - and change for the better - are afoot, factions on either side try to torpedo them. Mr. Sharon's bold move to leave Gaza won't settle the long-standing dispute, but it will return to Palestinians land that has been occupied for 38 years. If it is carried out successfully, it could bring about another period of calm to the area, allowing Palestinians to work toward revitalizing Gaza, and Israelis to carry on with their daily lives and benefit from renewed tourism. Ms. Rice can forcefully remind the two sides what's at stake, but she also must remember that this is only the first step toward bringing about negotiations for an equitable peace.

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