Middle East peace calls for bold steps

by Martha Ezzard

President Bush's motives in Iraq may be suspect, but you have to give him this: Once he decided that toppling Saddam Hussein was the goal, he went after the dictator with an almost ferocious single-mindedness. He was never deterred nor even distracted.

If the president now decides to push through his Middle East road map to peace, he might accomplish something far more significant to our national security.

If he is to succeed, though, he will have to take two steps he hasn't been willing to take: He must deal firmly with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to demand that Israel retreat from recent settlements in Palestinian territories; and he must tell the Defense Department to butt out of diplomacy in the Middle East.

Why would Bush make such a dramatic turn? He is clearly more comfortable with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his cadre of pro-Sharon hawks than he is with Secretary of State Colin Powell and his moderate advisers. Rumsfeld now has two strikes against him, though: His department's military intelligence on weapons of mass destruction hasn't panned out, and his installation of retired Lt. Gen, Jay Garner as civil administrator in Iraq has been such a disaster that the entire team is being replaced. The State Department's Paul Bremer III, a counterterrorism veteran, replaces Garner this week.

Though some Defense Department advisers -- namely Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle -- are blind to it, American success in forging a free postwar Iraq is directly related to whether Bush comes through on his commitment to help create a Palestinian state. America's Arab enemies have convinced even moderates in the region that Bush and Sharon speak with one voice.

The peace plan Bush is pushing offers security to Israel that Sharon's policies have failed to realize. Israeli retribution for Palestinian suicide bombings has only inspired more suicide bombers. The question, of course, is whether Bush is willing to spend some of the political capital he has amassed at home with the pro-Israel lobby, now chummy with the GOP's Christian Right.

It may be that if the additional 2,000 American experts sent to Iraq to uncover weapons of mass destruction don't come up with anything, Bush will be eager to shift the focus to the peace process. Thanks to a group of former CIA agents (Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity), the credibility of the information on weapons of mass destruction that Powell presented to the United Nations as the basis for going to war is coming under increasing scrutiny.

The ex-agents, who claim the CIA's checks on information sources were ignored by Rumsfeld and Co., sent letters to key members of Congress. And Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) has written to the White House to demand answers; he appears ready to call for a congressional investigation to uncover the origin of the possibly false intelligence.

Recently, news leaked out that even the scouring of Taji produced nothing suspicious. This was the only specific location Powell offered in his U.N. presentation on chemical and biological weapons in Iraq.

In his speech at the University of South Carolina last weekend, Bush set forth his first substantive vision of a transformed Middle East -- a free-trade zone, an Israeli pullback of settlements, an autonomous Palestinian state. If he could focus on the road map to peace with the same dogged determination that he gave regime change in Iraq, Bush could make it happen.

The demise of Saddam's brutal anti-Israel regime has diluted the power of the Sharon government, needed in the past as a regional counterbalance.

No other president has had quite the opportunity Bush has to change the dynamics of the Middle East. It's about risking political capital to leave a legacy far more important than the military victory in Iraq.