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Missing Mideast Puzzle Piece

To achieve this week's announced cease-fire between the Israelis and Palestinians - the first in more than four years - the key players have been doing "the right thing":

The Palestinians' newly elected leader, Mahmoud Abbas, denounced violence as the way to statehood, backing up words with deeds.

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Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon showed military restraint, and promised to withdraw Israeli troops from several West Bank areas, as well as release 900 Palestinian prisoners - a key issue for Mr. Abbas. And Wednesday Israel said it will reopen its Gaza border to Palestinian workers and merchants.

Meanwhile, the US - historically the go-between in the peace process - has responded swiftly to the new situation. It sent its secretary of State to the region, announced an aid package to the Palestinians, and stuck to its support of a viable Palestinian state. That President Bush has invited Abbas and Sharon to the White House indicates necessary US commitment.

But what about another critical contingent, the Arab neighbors? Egypt can be congratulated for hosting this week's summit, and the fact that both Egypt and Jordan plan to send their ambassadors back to Israel is a welcome sign of reengagement.

In talking about the peace process, however, the Arab states usually come at the end of the sentence. There are the principals, the US, the Europeans, and oh, yes, the Arabs. But as the almost-peace deal at Camp David in July 2000 showed, these neighbors should not be considered an afterthought. When Yasser Arafat, meeting with President Clinton and Israeli leader Ehud Barak, looked to his Arab friends for cover in making compromises, there was none.

The new Palestinian leader will need more visible support from the Arab world. Not all Arab countries have delivered on promised aid. Of greater importance, Abbas's closest neighbors should be publicly and consistently endorsing his nonviolent and democratic path.

Abbas hopes to convert Palestinian militants to the political process, but in a region where rhetoric counts for a lot, he'll have a better chance of succeeding if fellow leaders such as Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, Jordan's King Abdullah II, and the Saudi royal family get behind him.

But there's the rub. Can these regional kingpins fully and unequivocally back a "democrat" like Abbas when they themselves are autocrats?

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One could argue that benign autocrats have more leeway because they can say what they want. But think how much more credible and effective these countries' support for the peace process would be if they began to truly embrace democracy in their own nations. Then an entire region, rather than just a hot spot, would benefit.


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