Letter from Palestine

Are Israelis and Palestinians really ready to strike a peace agreement? Events have certainly moved at a brisk pace in recent months, with one obstacle after another to a lasting deal seeming to come down. Yasir Arafat’s death was followed by the choice of his successor in a direct election with universal suffrage, which was accompanied by Israel’s decision – one unique in the world – to help, not hinder the democratic process in territories it occupies. As a result, no one doubts Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s legitimacy.

Moreover, with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s announcement of his intention to withdraw Israel’s army unilaterally from Gaza, the occupation itself is once again an open question, offering opportunities for further progress. Indeed, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s support for the Gaza withdrawal has helped open the door to real negotiations.

Such an impressive sequence of events has not been seen for a long time in that troubled region. As a result, many – in and outside the Middle East – have become optimistic again. Even Sharon ventures a few favorable comments, and American diplomats express visible sighs of relief that progress toward peace can at last be made.

I can attest to the gathering momentum towards peace, having just returned from Palestine, where I led a nearly five-week mission of European Union observers, the largest ever put in place by the EU. The mission was 260-strong on the day of the election and the counting of the vote, while 40 of us had been there for the whole five-week period.