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
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.
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.