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For Sharon and Abbas, political victories buoy cease-fire

The Knesset approved $871 million in compensation for Gaza settlers; Abbas allies named for his cabinet.

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After four years of Israeli-Palestinian fighting, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas share an interest in maintaining a calm that enables both to advance their separate, yet intertwined, political agendas.

On Wednesday night, Mr. Sharon's plans for Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, to begin in June, took a major step forward. The Knesset voted 59 to 40 to approve almost $900 million in compensation for the approximately 8,000 settlers who are to be relocated. And Mr. Abbas took a further step toward consolidating his rule as successor to Yasser Arafat when his Fatah movement approved names for a new cabinet that includes several of his key allies.

The gains for the two leaders augur well for the current mutual cease-fire, but sharp differences persist between them over whether, when, and how to implement the international peace blueprint known as the road map, analysts say.

"Sharon and Abbas are in competition but they have shared interests in the short term," says Gaza Strip political analyst Hassan Kashif. "They have a common interest in calm."

"I envision sincere cooperation between them to implement the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza," Mr. Kashif adds. He says the two sides will also be able to agree on Israeli army pullbacks to the lines that existed before the outbreak of the intifada in September 2000.

While Sharon is interested in a smooth Gaza pullout and avoiding the appearance that Israel is running from Hamas fire, Abbas needs stability to revive the Palestinian economy, attract international aid, and complete an electoral process that began with municipal elections in December and will continue in this summer with legislative contests and internal Fatah polling, analysts say.

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