Next, an Israeli-Palestinian pact

April 11, 2003

Saddam Hussein's reign of terror is history. But for the United States, the enormous postwar tasks of rebuilding Iraq, helping it develop a democratic government--and mending some frayed relations with the Arab world and Europe--still lie ahead. That said, aggressively reviving the peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians also has to rank at, or very near, the top of the American priority list.

Peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians will not flourish spontaneously. Like the ouster of Hussein and his thugs, this will require strong and steady American leadership--and also pressure, in cooperation with our allies and international organizations.

Last summer, President Bush promised to unveil a "road map" to negotiations and an eventual peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Draft versions of that road map look more like broad series of requirements or benchmarks for both sides--most of them revolving around the cessation of violence--as a prelude to the creation of a viable Palestinian state side-by-side with Israel by 2005.

Even before the official unveiling of the road map, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon all but shredded it, voicing over 100 objections to it--more recently condensed to about 15--and threatening to abandon the process altogether.

President Yasser Arafat, who earlier this year seemed ready to relinquish some of his power to a prime minister who would begin the cleanup of the corrupt Palestinian Authority, also one of the requisites in the road map, appeared to be having second thoughts.

Although the road map was drafted by the so-called Quartet--the U.S., the European Union, the United Nations and Russia--the U.S. is the main player. Making this succeed will necessitate steady American diplomacy and arm-twisting of both the Israelis and the Palestinians.

The road map demands an end to both Palestinian terrorist attacks and Israeli retaliation in the occupied West Bank and Gaza. A logical start: That bloody back-and-forth has left almost 3,000 people dead over the past two years and ruined the Israeli and Palestinian economies.

Israel has--justifiably--made an end to terrorism by Palestinian extremists a non-negotiable demand. One does not negotiate with suicide bombers. Sharon's strong showing in January's election demonstrates Israeli voters agree.

Newly elected Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas has exhorted Palestinians to give up the terror campaign, also a wise move, though he is still trying to solidify his political base and push back efforts by Arafat and his cronies to meddle. Controlling terrorists is Abbas' most urgent and difficult challenge. But he also needs to offer something to his constituents, other than unilateral concessions, while Israeli housing demolitions, annexation and military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza continue.

Some even argue that iron-fist tactics by the Israeli government further radicalize the Palestinian public by playing into the hands of terrorist groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and making the job of Palestinian moderates and centrists like Abbas all the more difficult.

The Palestinian state it seeks to create is never clearly defined. But as drafted, the plan's proposed gradual, confidence-building steps leading to talks about the creation of such a state are an effective start to the negotiation process.

In Phase I, Palestinian leaders issue an unequivocal statement supporting Israel's right to exist, and an end to terrorist violence. Israel simultaneously vows to stop housing demolition, confiscation of Palestinian property and similar actions on the West Bank.

Most critical, Israel must agree to cease construction of settlements in the West Bank and to immediately dismantle settlement outposts erected since March 2001. Even during the Oslo peace process of the 1990s, settlements in the West Bank continued apace, often on confiscated Palestinian land.

Earlier this month, Jewish families began moving into an Israeli settlement built in Arab East Jerusalem, despite expressions of concern by the U.S.--hardly an auspicious sign of the Sharon government's intentions regarding the road map.

Both Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice recently underlined President Bush's support for the road map and called for an end to settlement activity in the occupied territories. Rice also has said the road map is a final proposal not a trial balloon. The U.S. already had delayed release of the road map until after the Jan. 28 Israeli elections, and later until after the formation of a Palestinian cabinet under Abbas.

Rice is correct: It's time to get to a final version. There ought not be any further delays, revisions of the road map--or circular negotiations over future negotiations.

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is a humanitarian tragedy. It is also a serious political challenge for the U.S.: It poisons relations with most nations in the region, and troubles European allies, most notably Britain. British Prime Minister Tony Blair has been most vocal about getting the peace process rolling again. On Wednesday, the foreign ministers of Britain and France jointly underlined the urgency of restarting peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

A free, democratic Iraq would be a milestone in the political development of the Middle East. But lasting peace and stability in the region won't materialize until the bloodletting between Israel and the Palestinians is stopped.

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