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As New Bush Team Takes Office, Focus Remains on Mideast Peace

It’s like a backward version of a boxing match. Israel and the Palestinians are facing off — and the first one to stop throwing punches, walk back to his corner and hang his gloves up wins.

The referee, as always, is the United States.

Each side is eager to win the contest — but is just as wary of turning his back on his opponent.

Yasser Arafat is dead, a relative moderate favored by the United States was elected in his place this month, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has cobbled together a broad coalition that supports territorial withdrawal and Condoleezza Rice is poised to launch an intensive round of diplomacy to get both sides back to the negotiating table.

The sense of momentum comes as George Bush begins his second term as president, with a new administration around him. Rice is likely to be confirmed Wednesday as U.S. Secretary of State, and the department’s top Middle East envoy is canvassing the major players this week to plot out Rice’s first steps on the job.

William Burns, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, met Monday in Frankfurt with other representatives of the “Quartet” — the diplomatic ensemble of the United States, Russia, the United Nations and the European Union that drives the Middle East peace process — and was to meet with Israeli, Egyptian and Palestinian leaders later in the week.

Even before her confirmation, Rice is set to meet Wednesday with Silvan Shalom, the Israeli foreign minister, in her current capacity as President Bush’s national security adviser.

Bush is expected to make support for a renewed peace effort a centerpiece of his talks with European leaders next month. He sees such a push as a way both to cultivate common ground and to nudge Europe to help control an increasingly restive Iraq.

One of Rice’s first events as secretary of state will be a March conference in London to help the Palestinian Authority adjust to Israel’s planned withdrawal this summer from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank. After that, Rice will visit the region.

The timetable seems to back Rice’s pledge during her confirmation hearings last week to devote “enormous effort” to the issue.

Israelis and Palestinians are eager to please Rice and her boss — and U.S. officials have made clear they’re keeping score.

“What we are looking for, first and foremost, from the Palestinians is concrete steps to get the security situation under control,” State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said Monday. “We’ve seen some steps that Abu Mazen has already taken, and we find that encouraging,” he said, using the nickname of P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas.

“We are also pleased at the level of coordination that we’re seeing between Israelis and Palestinians,” he said.

The Palestinian Authority has deployed a few thousand troops along the Gaza Strip border to stop rockets from being launched into Israel, and Abbas is trying to cajole terrorist groups into stopping attacks temporarily.

Israel has refrained in recent days from assassinating terrorist leaders. Palestinians say those killings were at least part of the reason for the collapse of the peace talks in 2003, the last time Abbas was in a position to negotiate, then as P.A. prime minister.

Israeli officials also are telling their U.S. and Palestinian counterparts that Sharon’s planned withdrawal will be more extensive than they expect and will not include the continued Israeli control of ports and borders that previous formulations have suggested. They also say a second phase will include the Jordan Valley, a region that previous Israeli governments were loathe to give up.

The rationale is that with Saddam Hussein behind bars and the U.S. occupation of Iraq showing no signs of abating soon, Israel no longer faces a grave threat from the east. But such assurances also dovetail with Rice’s insistence during her confirmation hearings that Israel’s withdrawal must leave the Palestinians with a contiguous West Bank territory that borders Jordan.

“It has to have territory that makes it viable,” she said. “It cannot be territory that is so broken up that it can’t function as a state, and I think that that’s now well understood. It has to have economic viability, and it probably needs to have economic viability in relationship to other states around it — to Jordan, to Israel and to others.”

On the other hand, each side is making clear that it believes the other must prove good faith. Israeli Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the Palestinians don’t deserve any reward for preventing attacks — after all, they’re obligated to so under the “road map” peace plan — and warned Abbas that Israel is ready to act against Palestinian terrorists if he fails to control them.

“With Abbas, we may have something, and we’ll know,” Netanyahu told Fox News Channel last week. “And of course, if they don’t do the job, we’ll do the job.”

Palestinians qualified their intentions.

“This is not a cease-fire; this is a Palestinian tactic to avoid giving the enemy any pretext to escalate the situation during the dialogue that would foil it,” Abu Qusai, a spokesman for the Al-Aksa Martyrs Brigades, a terrorist group in Abbas’ Fatah party, told Reuters on Sunday. “If there is any Israeli escalation, there will be a Palestinian response.”

The scars of four years of terrorism and of Israeli counter-incursions make it hard for either side to fully accommodate the other, said Naomi Chazan, a former Israeli legislator from the dovish Meretz Party who now is a visiting professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. That’s a factor the Bush administration cannot ignore, she warned an audience last week at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“A lack of trust is part of the conflict, emotion-driven policy is part of the conflict, the absence of the word ‘reconciliation’ is part of the conflict,” Chazan said.

It wouldn’t take a lot to precipitate a breach of trust. Palestinians are chafing at Israel’s acknowledgment this week that it is considering plans to confiscate land in eastern Jerusalem owned by “absentee” Palestinians, some of whom live just miles away in the West Bank.

Palestinians remain skeptical of Sharon’s plans, believing that in the best case he plans to offer them only about half of the total territory of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, according to Amjad Atallah, a former Palestinian negotiator.

That’s less than what those Palestinians who support a two-state solution are demanding, Atallah said — and the possibility of land confiscations in eastern Jerusalem only exacerbates the problem.

“There is an understanding that if eastern Jerusalem is not the capital of a Palestinian state, there is no Palestinian state,” he said.

Atallah suggested Palestinians should prepare for a return to protest, but with a new moral understanding of what’s acceptable.

“We need to bring a moral component and a legal component” to talking about an end to terrorism, Atallah said in a public appeal this week to Arab Americans to help increase their involvement in bringing peace to the region.

Palestinians and their Arab supporters must understand that ending terrorism is not just a tactical choice, he said.

“We’re quiet when Palestinians violate international law,” he said. “There is no unrestricted right to resist under international law. You cannot kill women and children.”

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