A year of peace

jerusalem | 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.

At a conference last week on Israel’s national security, Sharon declared that “2005 will be the year of great opportunity,” with “a chance for a historic breakthrough in our relations with the Palestinians, a breakthrough we have been waiting for 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 2005; 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 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 dismantle roadblocks.

The initial decision had troops withdrawing from urban areas 24 hours before the Jan. 9 balloting and returning 24 hours later. But Israeli defense officials now say they’re considering staying out for longer if the new Palestinian leadership shows that it’s willing and able to curb terrorism.

Israeli intelligence analysts say they expect Palestinian Liberation Organization chief Mahmoud Abbas, the front-runner for Palestinian Authority president, to take on the terrorist militias 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 Mahmoud creates stability, Israel will be able to coordinate much of the disengagement plan with him. Even if not, Sharon says he still will be 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 with the Palestinians and other players, he is determined to stick to the timetable.

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 precisely 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 reforms they pledged to under the road map.

Referring to the grandiose 1991 conference that launched an Arab-Israeli peace process that lasted throughout the 1990s, a senior British official said, “We don’t have a Madrid-style conference in mind. It’s more on practical ways of dealing with the day after disengagement.’

A main focus will be on helping the Palestinians meet the Israeli demand for a cessation of violence before any serious peace talks start. The British have been instrumental in setting up joint-operation rooms in Ramallah and Gaza to help the Palestinian Authority curb terrorist militias.

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.

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 should lead to an end to the terrorist war, further Israeli withdrawals from the West Bank and the establishment of a Palestinian mini-state. 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.

However well-intentioned, both Sharon and Abbas face serious internal opposition — Sharon in the form of Jewish settlers adamantly opposed to any withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and Abbas in the form of militias opposed to any deal with Israel.

Before 2005 becomes the year of peace, two big questions will have to be answered: Can Abbas stop the violence, and can Sharon uproot settlements in the face of strong resistance.