Peace Steps: Bush needs to make most of Mideast opportunity

May 28, 2003

The linchpin for the less hostile, more democratic Middle East envisioned by President George W. Bush is peace between Israelis and Palestinians. There is now genuine momentum in that direction. The president's personal participation is essential to keep it going.

So Bush would do well after next week's gathering of the Global 8 nations in France to head across the Mediterranean for some serious sit-downs. The White House said Tuesday that "a number of possibilities" for meetings were being considered. But officials in Jordan said Bush would join Arab heads of state for a summit conference in Egypt, and then meet in Jordan with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his new Palestinian counterpart, Mahmoud Abbas.

Assuming these meetings happen as they should, Bush must make clear to Arab leaders the depth of the U.S. commitment to Israel's security, and to a stable and self-governing Palestinian nation. Sharon set the table well this past weekend. Putting a great deal of faith in Bush, he won conditional approval from the Israeli cabinet for the so-called road map for peace and declared that Israel's "occupation" of the West Bank must end, a huge concession for this notorious hard-liner. Sharon also said "nothing will happen" without an end to Palestinian terror attacks on Israeli civilians.

While prodding Sharon and Abbas to keep moving toward one another, Bush can remind Arab leaders how fragile this process remains as long as terrorists are sworn to disrupt it. He can once again enlist their help in rooting out these renegade elements, who threaten not only Israel but stability throughout the Middle East and the world.

Sharon and Abbas are doing their parts. But the United States has the heaviest role, and next week affords President Bush a grand opportunity to play it for all it is worth.

Copyright 2003 Detroit Free Press Inc.