I am ever the optimist, and always eager to find hopeful indications, but it's often hard to cull hope out of news headlines. Today was unusual, as it was easy to find hope. One of the first major stories I heard this morning was that Ariel Sharon's cabinet have ratified pulling out of Gaza. As Sharon said, it was a very difficult decision for him, but at the same time it will be a very important step toward peace in the region. In the wake of Arafat's death, there is a window of opportunity to initiate movement toward peace, but it will only come with each side making some significant moves of conciliation. For Sharon, this is a big one, and along with it, 500 Palestinian prisoners are being released. Of course those Palestinians determined to see the glass half empty will complain about Sharon's commitment to complete the "wall" in the West Bank, even along moderated borders, or that there are a lot more prisoners. But no one can deny that this is a significant move, and certainly one that is costing Sharon a fair amount of "political capital". I am hopeful that Sharon is turning out to be the right man at the right time to play the "Nixon going to China" role that is needed now.
As if that wasn't enough for one day, I then heard excerpts from Bush's speech in Brussels. Just Bush being in Brussels (in itself a gesture to Europe) to mend fences with the Europeans was encouraging. But his words held some hopeful surprises. While the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has been unduly under-prioritized during Bush's first term, in this speech it was the leading topic, and characterized as "our greatest opportunity and immediate goal". In his comments that followed, he sketched out a very pragmatic vision that said that peace is achieveable if all parties meet their responsibilities. He chastened Arab neighbors to end incitement in their media, funding for terrorism, extremist education, and to recognize Israel. He challenged the Palestinians to dismantle terrorism, fight corruption, and embrace democracy and the free market, and he noted that a thriving Palestinian state should be Israel's goal as well. To Israel, he made the significant statement that a viable Palestinian state will require contiguous territory in the West Bank. (That was the significant stumbling block when Arafat balked at a previous proposed Israeli compromise.) These are really great and welcome words. I hope that we see some follow-through from all parties.