Bush Summits Test Leadership In Mideast

By Debra DeLee and James Zogby

May 30, 2003

As President George W. Bush travels to meet with Mideast leaders at two summits in Egypt and Jordan next week, the hopes of Jewish and Arab peace supporters on both sides of the Atlantic go with him.

The summits offer an opportunity for the president to provide Israeli and Palestinian leaders with greater encouragement to proceed with the Road Map, to guide the parties around obstacles that could stall peace-process momentum and to strengthen support for his diplomatic initiatives among Arab states.

Just as significant, they will give Bush a chance to dispel lingering doubts about his administration's commitment to sustained engagement in the pursuit of Israeli-Palestinian peace, a commitment that had not been apparent in the many months before the Iraq war.

Opponents of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process have been working overtime to derail President Bush's Road Map to Mideast peace. In the region, terrorist attacks against Israelis and assassination attacks against Palestinians have been used to undercut momentum toward the resumption of diplomacy. Closer to home, supporters of Israeli hard-liners are trying to erect barriers to progress.

They must not be allowed to succeed.

Palestinians and Israelis are exhausted from more than 30 months of violence and destruction. They have suffered too many casualties, watched too much of their economies wither, and lost too much hope for a better future to want to continue in the same bloody direction.

If the Road Map is to have any chance of being followed, President Bush needs to listen to the expressions of support for peace that are consistently reflected in opinion polls of the two sides and not let the sounds of violence drown out the voices of reason.

As leaders of Arab-American and Jewish-American organizations that advocate a secure and permanent negotiated solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we were heartened to see the president officially deliver the Road Map to Palestinians and Israelis despite political risks that could have caused him to hold back in launching this initiative.

We are also pleased to see that some of the steps required in the first phase of the Road Map have already been carried out - the Palestinians have appointed a reform-minded government that denounces violence, Palestinian finances have been cleaned up, and Israel has started to release some of the funds that it's been withholding from the Palestinians since the start of the intifada.

But we are also realists.

While Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas has accepted the peace proposal and has called for an end to all violence, he will need considerable support in meeting challenges to his authority and fulfilling his Road Map obligations, such as consolidating Palestinian security services and undertaking visible steps on the ground to combat terrorism. These would be difficult problems for him to tackle at any moment, but they are particularly hard at a time when he is relatively weak compared with the forces aligned against him.

In truth, Abbas will not be able to take security steps to solidify his position within Palestinian society and improve Israel's security without international and Israeli help.

Unfortunately, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has significant reservations about the Road Map that may make it more difficult, if not impossible, to implement.

For example, the Road Map calls on Israelis and Palestinians to take parallel steps in fulfilling their obligations. But Sharon has not accepted this principle. He thinks that Israel should be asked to carry out its responsibilities only after the Palestinians have met their requirements.

The Palestinians are rightfully expected to fulfill very tough measures to fight terrorism and embark on sweeping institutional reforms. Yet they will not be successful in pursuing these steps as long as Israel continues to assassinate Palestinians in the occupied territories and demolish Palestinian homes. Israeli restraint is needed to allow the new Palestinian government to show results for its security cooperation, restraint that must be exercised at the same time that Palestinian security forces crack down on terrorist organizations.

Given the tough steps that Palestinians and Israelis are supposed to undertake to stabilize the current situation, both sides will balk at meeting some of their obligations under the Road Map. Only a serious, sustained effort from President Bush will keep the process moving forward.

He must resist attempts to change the plan, ensure that the monitoring of compliance with the Road Map is effective and fair, and press Israelis and Palestinians alike to uphold their parts of the deal.

At the end of the path described in the Road Map, the two sides will once again be expected to come to terms with the most difficult issues that separate them.

But they will never have a chance to resume negotiations on critical problems like Jerusalem and refugees unless Bush firmly ushers them along the way.

After more than two years of the Intifada, Palestinians and Israelis desperately need his leadership, and they are more than ready for the Road Map. The upcoming summits will give him a chance to deliver.

Debra DeLee is president and chief executive of Americans for Peace Now, and James Zogby is president of the Arab American Institute, both headquartered in Washington.

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