Real peace in the Middle East?

Published February 14, 2005 12:50PM (EST)

After four years of wrenching conflict it's pretty uplifting to come across this headline in the Times this morning: "Abbas Declares War With Israel Effectively Over."

With the full results of the Jan. 30 elections in Iraq occupying the front pages the last couple of days, most focus on the region has stayed centered on Baghdad. But indeed, there are some striking -- and hopeful -- developments currently unfolding around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"The new Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, said in an interview this weekend that the war with the Israelis is effectively over," reports the Times, "and that the Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, is speaking 'a different language' to the Palestinians. Mr. Sharon's commitment to withdraw from Gaza and dismantle all Israeli settlements there and four in the West Bank, despite 'how much pressure is on him from the Israeli Likud rightists,' Mr. Abbas said, 'is a good sign to start with' on the road to real peace.

"'And now he has a partner,' Mr. Abbas said.

"In a 40-minute interview in his Gaza office late on Saturday night, Mr. Abbas spoke with pride about persuading the radical groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad to respect the mutual declaration of a truce that he and Mr. Sharon announced last Tuesday at their first meeting, in Sharm el Sheik, Egypt, which was the highest-level meeting between Israelis and Palestinians in four years. Mr. Abbas said the war with the Israelis would be over 'when the Israelis declare that they will comply with the agreement I made in Sharm el Sheik, and today our comrades in Hamas and Jihad said they are committed to the truce, the cooling down of the whole situation, and I believe we will start a new era.'"

For its part, the Israeli government has approved the release of 500 Palestinian prisoners, in keeping with commitments made at last week's summit in Egypt. The prisoners will be freed in the next week or so, with another 400 to be released by the spring. The Israelis are also preparing to hand over security responsibilities to the Palestinians for five towns in the West Bank, starting with Jericho this week.

Some of the more encouraging signs seen there in a long time. Still, an exhausting history of hopeful gestures that end up exploding in a relapse of bitter violence leaves reason to be only very cautiously optimistic. And while both sides seem on track now, in the end, success or failure in the critical months ahead may hinge foremost on the actions -- or inaction of -- President Bush.

By Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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