Posted on Tue, Apr. 22, 2003

Tick tock
That sound is time running out on new bid to end Israeli-Palestinian fight.

This is that "11th hour" you're always hearing about. This time, the ticking clock marks efforts to revive the bedraggled Mideast peace process.

Unless intermediaries can persuade Palestinian President Yassir Arafat by tomorrow to give new prime minister Mahmoud Abbas flexibility in naming his cabinet, the faint hint of hope for a renewed peace process will be gone.

That not only would be a shame, it would fortify the weary, cynical view that peace will never come to Israel, nor a state to the Palestinians.

What's at stake is a new opening that occurred this year when President Bush gave his support to a "road map" to peace drawn up by the so-called "quartet": the United States, Russia, the United Nations, and the European Union.

The opening became bigger when the United States reached Baghdad. The swift upending of Saddam Hussein's regime could persuade moderate Arab states to work with the United States in the region lest they become the next target of American military might.

Now, the President can - and should - turn his attention toward Israel. Late, but better than never, he can revive the United States as a central player in the Palestinian-Israeli situation. Bush has said he must see a viable alternative Palestinian leadership to Arafat, one committed to democratic reforms, before he will move ahead with the road map. Under that plan, the goal would be for a Palestinian state to exist alongside a secure Israel by 2005.

After much pressure, Arafat named Abbas, who is ready to talk peace and rein in attacks against Israel, as prime minister. Yet, in trying to keep power, Arafat has fought Abbas' selection of anyone to the cabinet who might ignore his wishes.

Arafat has fought hardest against appointing Mohammed Dahlan interior minister, whose duties would include overseeing internal security forces. Dahlan is ready - and possibly able - to crack down on militant Islamic groups. But Arafat won't let go of such power easily.

If Abbas is not able to name his cabinet by tomorrow, Arafat can name a new prime minister. If Abbas is replaced by an Arafat puppet who won't commit to the security Israel deserves, the opening will close.

The grim, intractable Palestinian-Israeli conflict involves stakes that extend well beyond those two peoples. Many Islamic extremists have seized upon the Palestinian cause to gain recruits for their terrorist fight against the United States.

To commit genuinely to the road map, Bush will have to buck some advisers and supporters by putting considerable pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as well. The White House has to press Sharon to overcome his deep reluctance to freeze or dismantle Israeli settlements. An Israeli insistence on preserving every settlement will undermine any plan that offers hope of real security for Israel.

Egypt, Jordan and the European Union have to put greater pressures on Arafat to keep Abbas and give him real authority to make decisions.

Any peace plan will require both Israeli and Palestinian leaders to make hard concessions. If they don't really want what they claim to want - security for Israel and a Palestinian state - they will let this 11th hour pass without such decisions. Better that they turn this precarious moment into a moment of opportunity.