Israel's friends should support Bush 'road map'

By Yoram Peri and Shira Herzog, 5/4/2003

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. Bush's ''road map to peace'' offers Israelis and Palestinians a way out of the cycle of violence in which they are trapped. They should seize this moment. Recent history offers an important precedent. Ten years ago, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process started because the end of the Cold War and the first Gulf War had created a new geo-strategic reality in the Middle East. Syria had lost its Soviet patron; the PLO had accepted a two-state solution to its dispute with Israel; and Iraqi Scud missiles on Israeli territory had demonstrated the limits of territorial depth.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin concluded that if Israel could negotiate political agreements with more contiguous, ''first-circle'' countries (a peace agreement with Egypt had been signed in 1979), it could better defend itself against the potential threat of nuclear and chemical warheads from the ''second circle''-- Iran and Iraq. This assessment was the cornerstone of Rabin's pursuit of negotiations with Syria, the PLO, and Jordan (with whom Israel signed a peace treaty in 1994).

The current Gulf War has created an even greater, tectonic shift in the region's strategic landscape. The lesson for Syria, Iran, and the Palestinian Authority is clear: The United States will not tolerate regimes that support terrorism or the development of weapons of mass destruction. And with Iraq defeated militarily, the threat on Israel's eastern front has dramatically lessened.

For Israel, this new strategic reality is a net gain. The critical question is how to capitalize on it.

Some Israelis want to take advantage of the weakened Arab condition to perpetuate the status quo and further expand settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. But the status quo will only lead to a net loss: The Israeli economy will continue to decline; internal schisms in Israeli society will deepen; Israel's international isolation will grow and its moral foundation will erode. For the first time, Prime Minister Sharon recently acknowledged the moral dilemma inherent in Israel's continued rule over 3 million Palestinians.

There is an alternative scenario: Israel can take advantage of its improved strategic position to change the status quo and resume negotiations with the Palestinians. Here's why: On the Palestinian side, the bitter lessons of the last two and a half years may finally be sinking in. For the first time in 20 years, Yasser Arafat's leadership has been openly challenged by his own parliament. Newly elected Prime Minister Muhammad Abbas has vowed to fight terrorism and to introduce greater transparency into his government. These developments have led Bush to present his road map to Sharon and Abbas.

The road map seeks to correct the flaws of a decade of failed negotiations by clearly spelling out three key issues: the Palestinian Authority is required to control terrorist and militant groups; Israel is required to cease settlement activity; and the Palestinians are given a commitment to a state by 2005. An international body will monitor the parties' compliance with a series of parallel, confidence-building measures. The hope is that sufficient trust will be rebuilt to return the parties to the negotiating table. There, the outstanding, substantive issues can be tackled.

In Israel and the United States, opponents of the plan view it as the unfortunate price Israel is forced to pay to help rebuild America's position in the Middle East. In fact, the opposite is true: The road map represents a dividend that Israel has gained from the redrawn strategic balance in the region.

Any such process will obviously face difficult obstacles. The suicide bombings that have greeted Abbas's appointment are a blatant challenge to his leadership from militant groups. And while Sharon understands the opportunity inherent in the new reality, he faces his own problems with right-wing coalition partners opposed to any change in the status quo. In the United States, powerful elements in the organized Jewish community and Republican circles have come out against the road map.

Sharon is right to question Palestinian statements of intent and to insist on proof of decisive action on the ground against terrorist factions. But if Abbas delivers even partially, Sharon will be under pressure to respond. Even if some coalition partners resign from the cabinet, he knows that the Labor Party may join the government with a strong public mandate for negotiations.

A negotiated agreement will reduce Arab and Muslim hostility to Israel, strengthen its economy, improve its international standing and reinforce its moral position. Therefore, in spite of the apparent risks, Israel's supporters should encourage Bush, Sharon, and Abbas to do all they can to stay the course. The alternatives are far worse for all involved.

Dr. Yoram Peri is a former adviser to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Shira Herzog is a writer on Israel affairs.

© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.