Prime Minister Ariel Sharon predicts 2005 will be the year of peace -- and Israelis, Palestinians and key members of the international community are taking steps to make it happen.
In a keynote speech last week at the Herzliya Conference on Israel's National Security, Sharon declared that "2005 will be the year of great opportunity," with "a chance for an historic breakthrough in our relations with the Palestinians, a breakthrough we have been waiting for years."
Sharon's upbeat tone reflected a contagious optimism that has all the key players focused on an ambitious peacemaking timetable: establishment of a broad-based Israeli government in December; Palestinian Authority presidential elections in January; an international conference in London in February; Israeli "disengagement" from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank in the summer; negotiations based on the "road map" peace plan leading to a Palestinian mini-state by early 2006; and then final peace negotiations between Israel and the provisional Palestinian government.
To help the Palestinians hold free and independent elections, Israel intends to limit military operations, pull the army out of Palestinian towns and cities and dismantle roadblocks.
The initial decision was to withdraw from urban areas 24 hours before the Jan. 9 balloting and return 24 hours later. But Israeli defense officials now say they're considering staying out for longer if the new P.A. leadership shows that it's willing and able to curb terrorism.
Israeli intelligence analysts say they expect PLO chief Mahmoud Abbas, the front-runner for P.A. president, to take on the terrorists in a way he did not as prime minister last year under Yasser Arafat, whose death Nov. 11 opened the way for diplomatic progress.
If Abbas does succeed in creating a more stable order, Israel will be able to coordinate much of the disengagement plan with him. Even if not, Sharon says he is determined to carry out the withdrawal to the letter and on schedule.
Sharon sees disengagement as the main engine for change in 2005, and says that while he is prepared to be open-minded on the amount of coordination with the Palestinians and other players, he is determined to stick to the timetable.
To ensure that the international community sees in the Israeli pullout an end to the occupation of Gaza, Deputy Attorney General Shavit Matias has recommended that the Israel Defense Forces withdraw from all Gaza territory, including the perilous Philadelphia route along the border with Egypt. That will mean entrusting Egypt with the task of stopping arms smuggling into the Gaza Strip after Israel withdraws. Israel apparently also has become more open to the idea of an international presence in Gaza.
The National Security Council, which is putting the final touches on the disengagement details, sees two distinct stages in the plan: Israeli withdrawal, in which Israel is the main player; followed by utilization of the pullout to improve the quality of Palestinian life and create conditions for negotiations based on the road map.
This is where the British-initiated international conference comes in. The idea is for the Americans, Europeans and possibly other international players -- but not the Israelis -- to meet quietly with the new Palestinian leaders in London in February to assess how the international community can help them institute the security, governmental and economic reforms they pledged under the road map.
On Wednesday, British Prime Minister Tony Blair was due to arrive in Israel to discuss the conference's terms of reference. His goal is to help bridge the crucial transition from disengagement to road map-based peace talks.
Indeed, for 2005 to become the year of peace, the road map will have to take off. A lot will depend on how Israel interprets Palestinian compliance with its demands for far-reaching democratic reforms and an end to terrorism.
European diplomats say they fear Israel will demand Palestinian democratization as an excuse to hold up the process. For their part, Israeli officials say that dumping the road map and trying to tackle final-status issues such as borders, Jerusalem and refugees prematurely -- as the Palestinians and some Europeans have demanded -- is a recipe for disaster.
Several months ago, according to Israeli officials, European decision-makers assumed John Kerry would win the U.S. presidential election and would be less committed than President Bush to the strict sequence of reciprocal steps the road map demands of Israel and the Palestinians. After Bush's re-election and Arafat's death, however, the Europeans apparently are ready to give the road-map formula another chance.
If successful, that formula will lead to an end to the terrorist war, further Israeli withdrawals from the West Bank and the establishment of a Palestinian ministate. Only then would negotiations on permanent peace issues -- including final borders, Jerusalem and refugees -- take place.
If the two sides can make that kind of progress, 2005 indeed will be crowned as the year of peace. Despite the optimism, however, that's still a big if.
Leslie Susser is the diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Report.
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