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HISTORIC MIDEAST MOMENT
GAZA PULLOUT WILL GIVE PALESTINIANS CHANCE TO SHOW THEY CAN LIVE IN PEACE WITH ISRAEL

Richard Nixon went to China. Anwar Sadat went to Jerusalem. And last Tuesday Prime Minister Ariel Sharon led the Israeli parliament in a historic vote to pull settlements out of the Gaza Strip and a small part of the West Bank.

It may not come to pass and even if it does, more may be necessary to reach a fair resolution of the decades-old dispute between Israelis and Palestinians, but this was a historic moment in the history of Israel. A passionate advocate of settlements meant to permanently secure land that many Israelis believe to be part of a God-given Jewish homeland has led the government and the country in that direction.

It is a development few observers would have predicted when Sharon took power in early 2001, any more than the fierce anti-communist Nixon could have been expected to lead the United States toward normalized relations with China.

Sharon's gamble is far more dangerous. One of his predecessors, Yitzak Rabin, was assassinated by an ultra-nationalist Israeli, enraged by the prime minister's proposals to trade land for peace. Politically, the vote split Sharon's conservative Likud Party, and while his government survived the division, it could end up weakening the prime minister.

The government is pursuing this policy without any conditions being imposed upon Palestinians, though it will inevitably have a range of effects on them. For one, the Palestinian Authority, which has repeatedly proved itself to be both incompetent and corrupt, will have more land to administer and more people to govern.

For another, it will be put in a position of having to show that, having regained some of the land it has demanded, it can moderate its behavior. It didn't do that after former Prime Minister Ehud Barak made a generous and historic peace offer, so it may not now. Either way, it will be a sign to guide future efforts to reach a permanent peace agreement.

More votes will be necessary before any withdrawals can begin, though Sharon has wisely refused to agree to right-wing demands that the plan be subject to a national referendum. The Knesset, or parliament, is the public's voice in government and on Tuesday, it made its desire known on the issue. What is necessary in the short run is for the government to go ahead in Gaza, and in the longer term to find a way to pull out of the West Bank once a viable leader and administration are in place to speak for the Palestinians.

But for now, the Palestinians need to rise above their sad history of, to paraphrase Abba Eben, never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

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