The 'Map' Still Matters

December 17, 2003

President Bush has been a staunch supporter of Israel and its prime minister, Ariel Sharon. Washington often refuses to criticize Israel for its tough tactics against Palestinians, tactics that other nations condemn. But last week Bush and State Department officials warned Sharon's government not to abandon the "road map" to peace drawn up by the United States, Russia, the United Nations and European countries. That was a deserved reminder that, despite odious Palestinian attacks on Israeli civilians and understandable Israeli reprisals, Washington remains committed to helping find an end to the violence.

Bush told reporters that Israel must not make decisions that increase the difficulty of creating a state for "the poor, suffering Palestinian people." Palestinian statehood is at the center of his plan to stop the fighting.

Bush and other officials are quick to criticize the Palestinian Authority; the administration refuses even to deal with the authority's leader, Yasser Arafat. Terror groups deserve condemnation and the authority should do much more to stop them. Israel remains the closest U.S. ally in the Middle East and the only democracy in the region. But Washington's failure to be evenhanded in its criticism upsets Arab allies who could help train Palestinian security forces and provide money for a new state.

The U.S. has rightly warned Israel that the barrier it is building on the West Bank should not enter Palestinian territory. Washington also has called for quicker action to remove newly built illegal Israeli outposts, one of the first actions called for in the road map.

The more difficult task will be dismantling long-established settlements in the West Bank and Gaza that are home to more than 200,000 Israelis. That is an issue Sharon is expected to address in a speech Thursday. Settlers are calling for right-wing parties to leave Sharon's coalition government if enclaves are removed. However, a survey last week found that nearly two-thirds of Israelis support evacuating most settlements as part of a permanent peace agreement. More than half favored evacuating Netzarim, a settlement in the Gaza Strip, without waiting for a peace pact with the Palestinians.

That reflects the fact that Netzarim puts an undue burden on Israel's military, which must protect the 50 families from Palestinian attacks and escort them in and out of the settlement in bulletproof buses or armored vehicles. If Israel moves decisively to dismantle its share of roadblocks to peace, the burden will be on the Palestinian Authority to meet its obligations and crack down on terrorists.

Polls show Palestinians and Israelis pleading for peace but also demanding security. Those goals are compatible, and both sides should welcome outside help in achieving them.

Copyright 2003 Los Angeles Times