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An opening for peace?

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, center,  waits for his passport to be stamped at the Rafah border crossing terminal on Nov. 25. (Pool/BP Images)

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, center, waits for his passport to be stamped at the Rafah border crossing terminal on Nov. 25. (Pool/BP Images)

JERUSALEM, Nov. 29 (JTA) — The dramatic political changes in Israel seem to have impressed key players in the Arab world, and there is a newfound optimism about chances for an Israeli-Palestinian accommodation. In rare comments on domestic Israeli politics, the leaders of Egypt and Saudi Arabia welcomed Ariel Sharon’s decision to leave Likud and found a new centrist party, and Amir Peretz’s election as Labor Party chairman, as seminal events that could take the peace process forward. Palestinian leaders are upbeat too. They’re encouraged by last Friday’s opening of the Rafah border crossing, which for the first time in 37 years gives Palestinians the freedom to move in and out of the Gaza Strip without going through an Israeli-controlled checkpoint. The opening of the crossing came more than two months after the last Israeli soldier left Gaza, and it took the personal intervention of U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to broker a deal between Israel and the Palestinians. Rafah is a particularly sensitive issue for both sides: It’s the one outlet from Gaza that leads not to Israel but to Egypt and a large Arab hinterland. At the opening ceremony, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said he was confident that the newly open border was the first step toward the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. Sharon sees the Rafah crossing as a test case; if it succeeds, Israel will be ready to go further. But critics of the open border policy such as Benjamin Netanyahu, the front-runner in the race for the vacant Likud leadership, see it as a dangerous precedent, leading to a heavily armed Palestinian entity in Gaza and the West Bank that will threaten Israeli cities. The fact that Egypt and Saudi Arabia are upbeat about domestic developments in Israel is not insignificant, as both countries carry considerable weight in the Arab world. Egypt helped negotiate the Rafah deal and convinced Palestinian terrorist groups to support the temporary cease-fire with Israel. Saudi Arabia led a 2002 initiative for peace between Israel and the Arab world and recently canceled its boycott on trade with Israel, setting what could be an important precedent. Encouraged by the new optimism among these key Arab players, Israeli officials also are quietly optimistic about chances for progress on the Palestinian track. Arab leaders have not been afraid to go on record. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak phoned Sharon to wish him success after his split from the Likud Party and told Spain’s ABC newspaper that Sharon is the only Israeli politician capable of making peace with the Palestinians. Sharon “has the ability to take difficult decisions, commit to what he says and carry it out,” Mubarak declared. In an interview with the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdallah suggested that things could change for the better “after the election of Amir Peretz as chairman of the Labor Party,” and he advised the Palestinians to desist from attacking Israeli civilians. The Palestinians too are openly expressing confidence that diplomatic rather than military action can bring results. Deputy Prime Minister Nabil Sha’ath spoke of a new mood in the wake of Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza, the continuing lull in violence and Peretz’s election as Labor leader. Moreover, in Palestinian primaries to choose the ruling Fatah Party’s candidates for January parliamentary elections, the often militant young guard swept the boards with peace messages. “This is a generation that wants peace and that can control the Tanzim militia men,” one of the leaders, Fares Kadoura, said in an interview on Israel Radio. Abbas called the open border with Egypt “a small dream that is part of the progress toward an independent Palestinian state whose capital is Jerusalem.” He added that soon there would be more crossing points at Erez and Karni, to be followed by an airport and a land link between Gaza and the West Bank. “We say here that Gaza is the beginning and not the end, and that additional steps will be completed in the near future in the West Bank as well,” he declared. On the Gaza side of the border, Palestinian officials will check travel documents as European and Israeli observers monitor the passage from a nearby operations room. The Israelis can indicate if they see anything suspicious, but will not be able to intervene physically to stop weapon smuggling or terrorists moving in and out of Gaza. Israeli attitudes to the Palestinian-run Rafah crossing reflect the divide over future ties with the Palestinians. Sharon sees it as a step toward stabilizing the situation and building on it; Netanyahu sees it as a huge strategic mistake, creating a conduit for the flow of terrorist weapons. Netanyahu sees Gaza turning into an “Islamic, fundamentalist terror state supported by Iran” and gives little credence to the security arrangements at the crossing point. “Today we expect the Europeans to supervise Egypt, to supervise the Palestinians, and they will supposedly stop the infiltration of weapons and terrorists,” Netanyahu scoffs. He predicts that weapons flowing into Gaza “will eventually find their way to the West Bank” and “constitute a threat to Israeli cities.” The difference between Sharon and Netanyahu is over a fundamental reading of historic processes. The Netanyahu view sees little chance of accommodation with the Palestinians, and is loathe to risk Israeli political initiatives unless the Palestinians reciprocate. The Sharon view sees a chance for incremental progress, and advocates unilateral steps by Israel if progress is blocked. For Netanyahu, a Palestinian state would constitute a serious threat to Israel; for Sharon, it’s an Israeli interest because it could stabilize an otherwise volatile situation. Sharon’s break with the Likud is designed primarily to create a new political constellation conducive to progress on the Palestinian track. That’s why there’s so much newfound optimism on both the Israeli and Arab sides. Time will tell whether or not it’s misplaced.