AN ADVANCE IN THE MIDEAST

Date: March 15, 2003
PRESIDENT BUSH'S announcement that he intends to present a so-called road map for Mideast peace to Israelis and Palestinians looks like a transparent effort to placate European allies and Arab countries in the run-up to a possible war against Saddam Hussein. Nevertheless, Israelis and Palestinians desperately need outside help to rescue them from an inferno of violence and vengeance. So despite the formulaic quality of Bush's Rose Garden remarks, they should be seized upon as promises that Washington will help guide the Mideast antagonists back into peace talks.

The Palestinian Legislative Council's vote earlier this week to create the post of a Palestinian prime minister was the reform Bush cited as catalyst for his decision finally to produce the road map devised by a quartet consisting of the United States, Russia, the European Union, and the United Nations. The first Palestinian prime minister is expected to be Mahmoud Abbas, best known as Abu Mazen. He is Yasser Arafat's second-in-command, a founder of the Palestine Liberation Organization and a proven pragmatist. If the road map evoked by Bush is to be implemented, it is crucial that Abu Mazen's freedom of action not be hampered by either Arafat or Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

If Arafat does not yield crucial powers to his longtime adviser, Abu Mazen will quickly be seen by his own people and by Israelis as a figurehead. As prime minister, he is supposed to be accountable not to Arafat but to the elected representatives on the Palestinian Legislative Council. But that realignment of responsibility will be meaningless if Arafat does not cede his control over Palestinian security services, any negotiations that may ensue, and, most important, the purse strings he has always tightly held.

Abu Mazen has clearly and forcefully criticized the militarization of the Palestinian intifadah as a grave mistake that has brought his people suffering and no gain. He speaks of wanting to rein in the extremists and demonstrate to Israelis that Palestinians want an end to occupation, not the destruction of Israel. But unless Arafat yields control of Palestinian finances to Abu Mazen, the title of prime minister will be useless. Abu Mazen cannot cut off funds for violent operations and have Palestinian Authority security forces compel Hamas terrorists to stop suicide bombings if he is unable to distribute the funds.

At the same time, Sharon will have to make gestures of good will. He will have to ignore the extreme rightists in his Cabinet and release funds for the Palestinians, withdraw troops from their cities, and, above all, stop the expansion of settlements and the taking of land for Israeli-only roads in the West Bank.

If Bush wants his Rose Garden words to have any meaning, he will have to make sure that Arafat and Sharon do not insert blind alleys into the road map for peace.

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