Monday, November 27, 2006

Movement, but progress?

Lots going on in the Mideast, but is it leading anywhere?

A week after talks over a proposed Palestinian unity government collapsed, Israel and Palestine concluded a shaky truce meant to put an end to Israeli incursions and Palestinian rocket attacks. And on that uncertain ground, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is trying to build a new peace process.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert reached out to the Palestinians on Monday in one of his most conciliatory speeches yet, saying he was prepared to grant them a state, release desperately needed funds and free prisoners if they choose the path of peace.

Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas was receptive, but Hamas militants were suspicious.

"This is a conspiracy. This is a new maneuver. Olmert is speaking about the Palestinian state without giving details about the borders," said Ghazi Hamad, a government spokesman.

But Olmert's suggestions are tantalizing. He essentially said Israel would withdraw from large parts of the West Bank, including uprooting long-established settlements, in exchange for recognition of Israel's right to exist, a renouncing of violence, and giving up any Palestinian refugee "right to return" to Israel.

That last could be a serious sticking point, but I don't see any real alternative. A negotiated compromise might work -- perhaps refugees could use a pool of repatriation money to buy their property back from the current owners -- but it's simply unworkable to suggest that large numbers of refugees can simply reclaim property that has been in other hands for nearly 60 years. They are, in essence, trading that land for a viable Palestinian state.

It's a reasonable offer. Many details remain to be worked out, of course, any one of which could sink the whole thing. And there will be the usual extremists who will try to scuttle the deal at all costs. But the Palestinians should look at this as the opportunity it is. If they are serious about improving the lot of their people and forging a peace that would let prosperity return, now is the time to prove it.

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