&#91VIEWPOINT&#93The good news from Middle East

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[VIEWPOINT]The good news from Middle East

After World War I, Erich Maria Remarque, a German writer, wrote a book about his horrifying experiences in the trenches that was translated into dozens of languages and turned into a Hollywood movie. Its laconic title in German was: “Nothing New on the Western Front,” which became “All Quiet on the Western Front” in the English translation.
Now, switching our view to the Middle East, the question is: Is there again nothing new on the eastern front?
For many years, there was, indeed, nothing new there. The news was always the same and predictably bad: war, terror, hatred and death. Now, for a change, the reports seem to offer more hope every day.
Here are some examples of the better news:
The Palestinian terror groups, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, have offered a three-month cease-fire to the Israelis.
The Israeli army is set to leave northern Gaza and the Palestinian town of Bethlehem on the West Bank, the birth-place of Christ.
The Israelis are offering to make life easier for the Palestinians, notably by allowing Palestinian workers, who have been barred during the uprising, to earn a livelihood in Israel again.
Israel’s prime minister, Ariel Sharon, and Mahmud Abbas, the Palestinian leader, not only have reestablished direct contact, but also have begun to speak in very civil language to each other.
Listen to this completely new tone from the eastern front. Mr. Sharon, who had always refused to meet Yasser Arafat, the president of the Palestinian Authority, meets with Mr. Abbas and speaks warmly of a “joint future of hope and prospects.” His Palestinian colleague responds with a plea “to put the past behind us.”
So above all, the two sides are talking to each other again, and, as Winston Churchill so famously put it: “It is better to jaw-jaw than to war-war.”
Why this surprising turn of events?
Above all the larger setting of the Middle Eastern front has changed for the better. To begin with, the war in Iraq has deprived the hard-liners among the Palestinians of their last, best friend in the Arab world, Saddam Hussein. The Iraqi dictator used to openly fund Palestinian terrorism by paying $25,000 to the families of each suicide bombing “martyr.” Conversely, Israel feels a lot safer now that the threat from Iraq has disappeared.
Second, the United States, the most powerful player in the Middle East, has succeeded in intimidating Syria, which has been sheltering Palestinian "rejectionist" groups in Damascus, and Saudi-Arabia, whose money at least indirectly ended up in the pockets of Hamas, the most active terror force in Gaza.
Third, with their partial reoccupation of the West Bank and the Gaza, the Israeli army has done enormous damage to Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Al-Aqsa Brigades, the military arm of Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement. This is perhaps the most important reason why these groups are asking for a cease-fire.
Fourth, Yaser Arafat, who has always pursued a two-track strategy by encouraging violence against Israel while offering to negotiate, has been weakened considerably. The Israelis practically hold him prisoner in his compound in Ramallah, and the Americans refuse to talk to him. After much pressure, some also from Egypt, Mr. Arafat was forced to accept Mr. Abbas as his prime minister and to relinquish control over some of the Palestinians’ security forces.
Finally, the Americans are putting heavy and consistent pressure on both sides to reach some kind of deal. President George W. Bush has put the peace process at the top of his agenda. Last month he traveled half-way around the world to meet with Arab leaders and Mr. Sharon and Mr. Abbas to demonstrate that the process will now be managed by the White House. To emphasize that point, he has sent his national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, to the Middle East.
Now the biggest question of them all. Why should the bitter news turn into consistently good news? The best answer is that never before in the last decade have so many favorable trends coincided.
This does not mean that peace will break out the day after tomorrow. Certainly, Hamas and Islamic Jihad have not renounced their goal of annihilating Israel. But there is at least a 50-50 chance that the vicious circle that has imprisoned Israel and the Arabs in endless violence might turn into a virtuous circle.
Imagine that Mr. Abbas keeps extracting significant concessions from Israel. This will strengthen his position inside Palestine and perhaps allow him to keep the terror groups in check. Imagine that the terror stops. This will strengthen the peace forces in Israel and make room for more concessions.
In a more trustful atmosphere, hitherto irresolvable differences might soften and open the way to compromise. Imagine ever more economic interaction, which creates jobs in Palestine and thus peaceful opportunities for the young who might otherwise join the terror brigades.
At least this is a dream that has become much more real since the American victory in Iraq. But there is no guarantee that this dream will not turn into a nightmare again. All it takes is a few suicide bombs in the crowded spaces of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

* The writer is the editor of Die Zeit, the German weekly, and an associate at the Olin Institute for Strategic Studies at Harvard University.


by Josef Joffe
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