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An Unsettling Dot

AS James Baker again shuttles around the Middle East, he'll have to take into account a disconcerting new dot on his map toward an Arab-Israeli peace agreement. It's named Revava, the latest Israeli settlement on the West Bank. The Bush administration responded to news of the settlement's opening, just ahead of Mr. Baker's arrival in Israel, with its stock comment that "settlements are an obstacle to peace." To be more specific, an expansion of Israeli settlement in the West Bank or Gaza, right now, as proposals for a regional peace meeting are slowly taking shape, could thwart hopes for even a minimal breakthrough on procedural matters.

Baker's immediate goal has been to get both sides to take steps to allay mutual doubts and fears. This demands political courage. The Arab side, for example, could put tremendous pressure on Israel by declaring an end to the economic boycott of the Jewish state, though such a move would break Arab precedents built up over four decades.

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An obvious "confidence-building measure" on the Israeli side would be a moratorium on building new settlements. What clearer indication that the Shamir government is capable of stepping aside, even temporarily, from the "Greater Israel" vision that so worries the Palestinians and other Arabs?

Continued building, in line with plans laid out by Housing Minister Ariel Sharon for 13,000 new units in the occupied territories, simply confirms Arab concerns that Israel has no inclination to compromise on territory and in fact plans a de facto annexation.

For all their deeply rooted fears, both sides have much to gain from inching toward peace. The Israelis, bolstered by new immigrants, would have a chance to turn their energies to something other than military prowess. The Palestinians could find that once they have even the basic rights of voting and conducting their own governance in the territories, their political and economic power could multiply.

Mr. Baker, for all his skill at the minutiae of negotiation, also has to help the parties see a little further into the future.

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