Hazy Mideast Peace Vision

February 28, 2003

President Bush ended his protracted silence on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict this week by painting a vision of an independent state of Palestine living in peace next to Israel, a vision he has described before. But his picture of the path to permanent peace was too vague to be useful, especially given his recent neglect of the conflict.

Bush's solution to a key stumbling block was for Israel to end "settlement activity" in the West Bank and Gaza. Does that apply only to new settlements? Or additions to old one? He should have specifically insisted that Israel demolish most settlements in territories seized in the 1967 war. No one expects every single settlement to be bulldozed, but polls show a majority of Israelis want most new buildings on occupied lands to come down.

Bush played into the hands of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who on Thursday presented his new right-wing government to parliament with a proclamation that though no new settlements would be built, existing ones would be expanded. Palestinians reasonably see that as a further encroachment on land they believe is theirs.

Bush said Thursday his administration was working on the Middle East every day. However, his last major address on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict was in June. U.S. diplomats in the region say they have seen no indication that Washington puts a high priority on bringing both sides together. Instead, the focus has been on Iraq.

The president said "success in Iraq" could launch progress toward a democratic Palestinian state by depriving terrorists of the patronage of Saddam Hussein. But Hussein has given less aid to terrorists than Iran and Syria have.

Bush again said, as he should have, that the Palestinians needed new leadership. Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat moved glacially in that direction this month with his promise to create the post of prime minister. Arafat will not be believable until he says whom he will appoint, when, and what authority that person will carry.

After the 1991 Gulf War, the administration of Bush's father convened a Middle East conference in Madrid that, after many detours, led to the Oslo process and to President Clinton's nearly successful attempts to broker a lasting peace. Arafat's recalcitrance killed the deal, leading to more than two years of close-quarters violence in Israel and the occupied territories. Palestinians need to stop the suicide bombers from wreaking terror on Israel. Sharon's government, filled with die-hard opponents of the Palestinians, must do more to show it is sincere about coming to the negotiating table.

Arab nations long have said that settling the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis is more important than disarming Iraq. Bush's speech Wednesday night amounted to a declaration that the road to Middle East peace leads through Baghdad. It is far more accurate to say the road leads first through Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, Nablus and Hebron.

Copyright 2003 Los Angeles Times