Is the Palestinian-Israeli conflict finally headed to a resolution?

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For those of you who enjoy pressing your index fingers to your temples, closing your eyes, and visualizing whirled peas, February has been a better than average month. So far, Jan. 30’s Iraqi election has not caused a spike in sectarian violence as some (me included) thought it would. Meanwhile, over in the wholly unholy Holy Land, Israelis and Palestinians have taken the first baby steps in the direction of a comprehensive peace settlement in more than four years.

After the nitty-gritty was negotiated by their underlings, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas met in the resort town of Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt, on Feb. 8, shook hands, and promised to work for peace.

It’s hard to get too optimistic about a photo-op handshake. Those of you who work in the professional handshake-watching industry probably recall that misters Sharon and Abbas exchanged peace-themed handshakes two years ago. This month’s handshake was totally different, though.

First of all, according to my sources, Sharon and Abbas followed up the handshake by removing reporters from the conference room and making passionate love to one another on the negotiating table. Prior to that meeting, the two had fooled around but had never gone all the way.

Secondly, and more importantly, the handshakin’ and earthquakin’ lovemakin’ was followed by honest-to-goodness, tangible pro-peace actions. Abbas promised to end violence against Israelis, and Sharon promised to end military activity against Palestinians. It’s the semi-official end of the 4-year-old Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation that killed about 1,000 Israelis and 3,500 Palestinians. Israel promised to consider releasing more of the 8,000 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails and to increase the number of Palestinians allowed to travel into Israel for day jobs from the West Bank and Gaza. (The new total, 17,000 per day, is still way down from the pre-uprising level of 150,000 per day.)

On the Palestinian side, Abbas has promised to do his best to reign in the Palestinian Islamist militants who’ll do their best to screw up any and all peace arrangements. Among his first moves was ordering Palestinian television to replace shows that eulogize suicide bombers with - I’m not making this up - nature shows and romantic films. He has also pushed Palestinian broadcasters to play less anti-Israeli music, a decision that hurt sales of the recent Toby Keith and Cat Stevens duet, “Red, White ‘n Jew.”

Abbas has to perform a balancing act if he’s gonna succeed in pushing his side of the peace process along. He has to control militants without seeming like he’s just a stooge doing Israel’s work. People who think about these things think his biggest challenge won’t necessarily come from homegrown Palestinian militant groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad, but rather from the Iranian-funded, Lebanon-based Hezbollah. (An aside: the New York Times spells it Hezbollah, Newsweek spells it Hizbullah, and Vibe magazine’s Middle Eastern bureau chief spells it H-to-the-izzle, Bo-to-the-shizzle.)

The Bush administration and a few prominent members of Congress think that Iran wants to promote serious instability in and around Israel so that the United States and Israel will have less time, money, and manpower to focus on Iran. But how intent are Palestinian militants on scuttling any peace agreement? Before news stories about the handshake even managed to get to most newsstands, Palestinian militants in Gaza fired 50 or so rockets and mortars at an Israeli settlement. Abbas responded by condemning the attack and firing three of his top security chiefs for dereliction of duty, aka failing to adequately enforce the cease-fire.

Sharon also has competing interests to balance. The majority of his own Likud Party is at best ambivalent and at worst completely opposed to Israel giving up land for peace. Though the majority of Israelis support the move, Sharon’s fellow Likudniks oppose his planned unilateral withdrawal of Israeli settlements from Gaza.

Many are still wedded to the idea of a “Greater Israel” that includes the West Bank and Gaza. Though Sharon is often called the “architect” of the Israeli settlements in Gaza and West Bank, it seems that he’s practical enough at this point to realize that, barring massive deportations of Arabs, a Greater Israel would be majority Arab within a generation, thanks to higher Arab birthrates.