Agreement between the old and new voices of Palestinian leaders Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas may signal the arrival of a new starting point in the seemingly never ending quest for a Palestinian state.
After Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority's new Prime Minister, and his cabinet are confirmed as the new government by the Palestinian legislative council, a new era will dawn in the modern politics of the Middle East. For the first time, Yasser Arafat will no longer been seen, either in the Arab world or in the U.S., as the political leader of the Palestinians.
Once Abbas assumes the mantle of political power, the Bush administration and its fellow members of the so-called "Quartet" - Russia, the U N and the European Union - will publicly unveil their roadmap, which calls for establishment of a Palestinian state by the summer of 2005.
It seems this time the Palestinians will disprove the oft-quoted quip of the late Israeli politician and diplomat, Abba Eban, that "the Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity."
Israel has already talked to senior officials in Washington about possible changes in the roadmap and the Palestinians will undoubtedly have changes they wish to make. Nothing is automatic, however, and the first step is to get people talking about peace.
Relations between Arafat and the Bush administration have been so cold no senior U.S. official has been allowed to speak with the Palestinian leader for almost a year. Relations between Israel's Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, and Arafat are no better. Neither Bush nor Sharon trusts Arafat and both believe he has ties to terrorist activities against Israel. Thus, the hope that the logjam created by lack of communication, continuing terrorist attacks on Israelis and subsequent security crackdown on Palestinians can be broken by the installation of new leadership for the Palestinians which will lead the parties back to the peace table.
The public release of the roadmap will trigger other moves to build confidence. Secretary of State Colin Powell is expected to travel to the region for the first time in more than a year to tell both sides what they must do to begin rebuilding confidence among their peoples.
Mahmoud Abbas will have to show Israelis he can and will bring an end to terrorist activities. Sharon, generally distrusted by Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza and also by the rest of the Arab world, will have to loosen the economic and security restrictions his government has imposed on the day-to-day activities of Palestinians. The roadmap also calls on Israel to ultimately make the politically tough decision to stop settlement activity in the West Bank and Gaza.
Neither side has an easy task, even if there is goodwill on both sides. There's also the uncertainty of Chairman Arafat's future role in Palestinian politics. Is he really stepping aside? Can he truly relinquish political power and watch others take the lead, perhaps making compromises he was unwilling to make? No one, not even Mahmoud Abbas knows the answers to these questions, which is the reason Israel will insist on step-by-step progress.
And there's one more question yet to be answered: how much time and political capital (in a year leading up to a presidential election) will the Bush administration put into achieving the goal of "two states, Palestine and Israel, living side by side in peace and security," something Mr. Bush speaks about often but has yet to show he's willing to invest the effort to achieve.
By Charles M. Wolfson