A new window for change

Posted: Nov 30, 2004 12:00 AM

Democracy in the Middle East will not come through Iraq or Afghanistan. It will only flow from an independent Palestinian state, which became a possibility with the death of Yasser Arafat.

We have been presented with a window through which to launch democracy and the implications are profound. Arafat's likely successor, Abu Ala, wants peace. He wants to prevent another generation of young men in that region from growing up without hope. Most importantly, he is someone with whom we can negotiate.

But the process cannot be forced or willfully imposed. The United States cannot prop up a group that has been openly hostile to Israel for the last 50 years. Doing so would prove disastrous for the future of Israel. We've seen in the past how supplying military and economic concessions to Egypt and, before them, Iraq, threatened to pull apart the entire balance of power in the Middle East.

Yes, we must act quickly, but we cannot act arbitrarily. We cannot push ahead with a peace plan without ensuring that the Palestinian authority's new leader will actually crack down on terrorism against Israel. Simply, there can be no peace until the Palestinian leadership dedicates itself to eradicating terrorism. Will a roadmap - a simple edict - undo the cultural configurations that lifetimes of hate have created? The answer's no. There must be cultural change. Palestinians must wish to integrate. This possibility exists. The Palestinians are weary of their own intifada, but a democratic Palestinian state living peaceably next to Israel will only occur after the Palestinian infrastructure changes.

That process began last week when Secretary of State Colin Powell met with Israeli and Palestinian leaders in an effort to restart peace talks. After the meeting, Powell spoke to the historic opportunity presented by the forthcoming Palestinian elections: "I sense an understanding that an opportunity has presented itself and if both sides work together to make sure that the Palestinians have a successful election on the ninth of January, and to that election bestow the legitimacy of the electorate on a new president, then we have some opportunities to move even more aggressively in the months after that toward the disengagement from Gaza."

And indeed, Israel has responded with a historical withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank. This is only a beginning. It will take an enormous effort by the United States, Israel and the new Palestinian leadership to re-establish peace talks and to bring a new focus to the debate about an independent Palestinian state. America, England and Israel have stepped forward. If the Palestinian elections do not disintegrate beneath the infighting of rival factions, a new partnership for peace will emerge. That would finally help stabilize the Middle East and have a ripple effect throughout the world.