May 25, 2003

The President's Mideast Vision

This page has said, countless times, that strong American intervention offers the only chance for a peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians. We have often said it with faint hope that it would ever happen. Early in his presidency, George Bush stepped back, on the theory, promoted by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel and Mr. Sharon's supporters in the United States, that little could be accomplished without changes in the Palestinian leadership and its attitude toward terror. There have now been such changes. Moreover, Mr. Bush is not the same president. He may go to the Middle East next month to become more directly involved. We urge him to do so.

In the aftermath of Sept. 11, the Bush administration gradually adopted a grand scheme for refashioning the Middle East that began with the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. The end goal is a transformed region in which autocratic governments open the windows to more democracy while their moribund societies join the global economy. Prosperity, hope and political openness will reduce the attraction of the extreme version of Islam that spawned Al Qaeda. We and others wondered if the administration had thought the plan through before leaping into the Iraq invasion. But the president has bet his legacy on his ability to carry it out.

It is clear that there can be scant progress toward the president's goal without a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian question, which has broken the hearts of countless diplomats. Both the Israelis and the Palestinians are cursed with a powerful minority obsessed with disastrous goals. There are Palestinians who still dream of destroying Israel just as there are Israelis who imagine a reincorporated West Bank, with the Palestinian population living among them as nonvoting noncitizens.

Mr. Sharon is a popular leader who has shown limited vision and has to contend with members of his government more extreme than he. Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian prime minister, is weak, unpopular and hemmed in by Hamas terrorists who are intent on continuing to send suicide bombers into Israel. Western leaders can issue all the "road maps" to peace they want, but nobody is going anywhere in this situation unless the United States leads the way.

The Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip are a particular sticking point. They represent for the Israeli right the cherished hope of reclaiming land that belonged to the Jews in biblical times. But the settlements are unsupportable. They are daggers in the heart of a future Palestinian state. Many are tiny enclaves in or near Palestinian towns and land, guarded by Israeli troops who make the Palestinians feel like hated intruders in their own homes.

On the Palestinian side, the biggest problem, by far, is terrorism urged by some leaders and insufficiently condemned by others. Mr. Abbas says he wants to put an end to it but cannot make a serious move without a good-faith concession from Israel. The easiest way to begin the peace process would be for Mr. Abbas to move against Hamas as Israel dismantles the hundred-odd new settlement outposts that have been established in the West Bank since 2001 without government permission. Mr. Abbas says he needs Israeli concessions before he moves. Mr. Sharon says he needs a crackdown on terror before he moves. It is a maddening circle of suspicion and fear.

The United States, which provides massive financial aid to Israel, and which has the means to help restart the Palestinian economy as well, is the one force capable of breaking through this destructive cycle. Mr. Bush's dream of a transformed Middle East is not going anywhere as long as the Arab world is obsessed with the plight of the Palestinians. The Mr. Bush of two years ago was not ready, for reasons of both policy and politics, to make any strong moves. But now conditions have changed and he has a grand vision, larger and more risky than any dreamed by his predecessors. We hope he is willing to follow it through.

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company