No question about it, the Feb. 8 agreement between Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas for a ceasefire is an important event. Many circumstances, including new Palestinian leadership, exhaustion with conflict on both sides, and Israeli plans to withdraw from Gaza, are coalescing to provide an opportunity not only to halt the violence but also to take steps toward a more permanent peace.
Now the international community, and the U.S. in particular, needs to step in and follow up the ceasefire. If matters are allowed to drift, hotheads on both sides could easily disrupt the recent calm. More needs to be done to give the lull a chance to turn into something lasting. If relations between the two sides go smoothly over an extended period of time, the way could be eased for talks on a more permanent solution. Given the history of mistrust and collapsed agreements between the two sides, international peacekeepers, brought in with the agreement of both sides, might play a useful role.
But that is jumping the gun. In the next few months there is a need to make sure both sides notice the progress. For the Palestinians that means revival of an economy that has been wrecked by the intifada. The answer isn't so much foreign aid handouts as easing up on the Israeli checkpoints that make commerce almost impossible in the Palestinian territories. The U.S. has to make sure that Israeli security concerns don't choke off the promising start that Abbas has made.
Winning over Israelis is just as important as providing carrots for the Palestinians. Abbas needs to persuade Israelis that he is a trustworthy negotiating partner. Showing that he is serious about policing his borders and discouraging attacks on Israelis is the msot important way he can appeal to the Israeli public. Sharon's planned withdrawal from Gaza will also give Abbas the opportunity to show both Palestinians and Israelis that he can improve security and curb corruption of that blighted stretch of slums. There is little doubt that Abbas is serious. But he is going to need help in translating good intentions into results.