March 15, 2003

Middle East Peacemaking

It is hard not to be skeptical about the timing of President Bush's statement yesterday on a long-delayed push toward Israeli-Palestinian peace. At the end of a losing week for him on Iraq, Mr. Bush clearly felt the need to help Prime Minister Tony Blair quell political opposition at home by demonstrating a renewed commitment to Middle East peacemaking and proving that he had not abandoned the Palestinian problem. Nevertheless, Mr. Bush took an important step that needs to be encouraged as well as matched and supported by Arabs, Israelis and Europeans.

The president said that as soon as the Palestinians confirmed Mahmoud Abbas as prime minister and if it was clear that the position would carry real power the so-called road map for peace would be presented to Israel and the Palestinians. The road map agreed upon by the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations, known as the quartet is a set of steps both sides must take. For months, the administration has declined to publish the plan, saying that until the Palestinians began serious political reform and curbed violent attacks on Israelis, there would be no point. Meanwhile, Israel's settlement building and harsh military incursions in the West Bank have continued apace without comment from Washington.

There are many reasons to doubt the prospects for Middle East peace. Palestinian violence grinds on, killing and maiming ordinary Israelis. The new Israeli government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is the least conciliatory in the history of the state. And Yasir Arafat has proved himself to be a failure as a statesman but a success at maintaining his grip on power.

The appointment of Mr. Abbas, known as Abu Mazen, could prove, however, to be a turning point. Although Mr. Abbas wrote a despicable Holocaust-denying dissertation years ago, he has been a persistent voice for reconciliation and the most important Palestinian to denounce the current intifada. His powers remain unclear, and Mr. Bush is right to insist that they entail "real authority." Ideally, he should be put in charge of Palestinian security forces and peace negotiations. Washington would be wise to invite Mr. Abbas soon to the White House so it can publicly open the door it shut in Mr. Arafat's face.

The road map, which calls for a Palestinian state by 2005, suffers from vagueness. But it is a decent place to start. If Mr. Bush does publish it, Arab and European leaders must do their share, by helping the Palestinians move to a post-Arafat era and providing political cover for compromise. The Israelis must end their settlement building. No one can know what the world will look like after a war in Iraq. But the Israeli-Palestinian dispute will certainly require urgent attention.

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company