Steps toward peace in the Middle East

Tuesday, July 8, 2003

After three years of bloody hostilities, there has been an encouraging -- if fragile -- step toward peace in the Middle East. Three major Palestinian groups have declared a temporary cease-fire, and Israel has withdrawn military forces out of part of the Gaza Strip.

The militant Islamic Jihad and Hamas groups announced a joint three-month cease-fire. Yasser Arafat's Fatah faction declared a six-month truce.

Church bells rang in celebration a few days later as Israel followed through on its pledge and handed over the West Bank city of Bethlehem to Palestinian police.

Residents of the birthplace of Jesus spoke of finally feeling safe in their homes without the fear of soldiers beating down doors to make raids. Following the truce, this was a crucial second step towards peace.

Clearly, the peace comes as the direct result of American intervention. President Bush's road map to peace in the Middle East, which he announced at a June summit, calls for a Palestinian state by 2005 and security guarantees for Israel.

The truce also came as U.S. national security adviser Condoleeza Rice held talks with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in Jerusalem, a day after meeting with his Palestinian counterpart, Mahmoud Abbas.

Rice is still talking to both sides about further steps in implementing Bush's plan. The truce probably would not have come about if not for U.S. involvement.

But let's not pat ourselves on the back just yet. We've been down this road before. There are reasons for healthy skepticism.

These initial moves are baby steps.

Previous cease-fires have failed. There are still extremists within each group that want to wage war.

And there's the fact that, as of last week, the death toll stood at 2,414 on the Palestinian side and 806 on the Israeli side in recent hostilities. That loss of life won't be easily forgotten by either side.

But any step, however small, toward peace is welcome. And the truce does do several things, including buying time for both sides to reach a solution.

The cessation of suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks also creates a better climate for talking about peace.

It only makes sense that, if they're going to build anything positive, the killing has to stop first.

There's no question that the truce is only a beginning. The temporary cease-fire must transform into permanent peace. The United States will continue to be instrumental, as it must keep the lines of communication between both sides open and flowing.

A chance for the coexistence of these peoples has never been better. It's just a start. Let's build on it.

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