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Seizing opportunity in the Mideast

By Elise Labott

Editor's Note: In our Behind the Scenes series, CNN correspondents share their experiences in covering news. Producer Elise Labott has spent the last five years covering the State Department for CNN.

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CNN producer Elise Labott

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- When Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced he would embark on an Israeli pullout from Gaza and some West Bank settlements, the United States seized on the opportunity presented by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's death to turn the disengagement into an opportunity for peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

Since taking office in January, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has visited the region three times in an effort to turn what began as unilateral Israeli plans into an initiative coordinated with the Palestinians and the international community.

Now U.S. diplomacy is geared toward ensuring the Gaza withdrawal paves the way for further steps toward a comprehensive peace between the two sides.

The Bush administration has repeatedly said it sees the disengagement as the beginning of the process toward a two-state solution. But U.S. officials acknowledge a calm, smooth withdrawal from Gaza is a critical first step.

This means pressing the Palestinian leadership to make good on their security commitments, assume control over Gaza and confront Palestinian militants. Which is why Rice appointed Lt. Gen. William Ward to prepare the Palestinians to take over security and, along with the U.S. partners in the Mideast Quartet -- Russia, the European Union and the United Nations -- named former World Bank President James Wolfensohn as an envoy to manage the withdrawal and revive the Palestinian economy.

Earlier this month Rice sent James Wilkinson, one of her senior advisers, to Ramallah to work with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on strengthening his office and improving his image and authority. The Bush administration realizes that Abbas must deliver a better life for his people to justify his cooperation with Israel.

The United States has provided $50 million to the Palestinians for new housing and infrastructure projects in Gaza following the withdrawal, but has been coy about how the administration will respond to an Israeli request for $2.2 billion in U.S. aid.

Some officials and experts suspect the administration's hesitancy in announcing a dollar figure to defray Israeli costs of the withdrawal is being used as leverage to ensure Israel coordinates with the Palestinians after the withdrawal is complete and allows freedom of movement of people and goods. This in turn will create the conditions for a strong Palestinian economy and, ultimately a viable democratic state. The U.S. recently announced it would invest an additional $50 million to improve checkpoint crossings in Gaza and the West Bank.

The United States also wants to make certain "Gaza first" is not "Gaza last." Once the Gaza withdrawal is complete, the U.S. will press Sharon to move to implementation of the U.S.-led "road map" to the creation of a Palestinian state and a negotiated final settlement between the two parties.

The first phase of the road map calls for "behavior modification" - on the Palestinian side cracking down on terrorist groups and on the Israeli side halting settlement expansion and ending illegal settlement outposts.

The pace and intensity of that U.S. push for lasting peace may be dictated by something beyond its control -- politics in the region. Opposition from Prime Minister Sharon's Likud party and from Israeli extremists has left him with a shaky political standing which may prevent him from moving ahead soon on further steps with the Palestinians.

If Israel was to step back from negotiating with the Palestinians it would not only further weaken the hand of Abbas, it could spark fresh attacks by Palestinian militants that risk a renewed cycle of violence, which could close the door on what the U.S. sees as the best opportunity for peace in decades.

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