Thu, May. 29, 2003

The "o" word
Sharon said it, and that is progress.

This peace plan is no ordinary road map.

The latest plan aimed at bringing security to Israel and a state to Palestinians, is more like the choreography for a delicate ballet. The intricacy of that ballet is why the United States must lead this dance until it is done.

It's good news that both sides have made moves. First, Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat, under great pressure, appointed Mahmoud Abbas as the Palestinian Authority's prime minister. On Monday, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon made startling comments to his conservative Likud Party.

Not only did he support the road map (backed by parliamentary approval); he also accepted a Palestinian state - and used the "o" word.

Who would have thought Sharon would acknowledge that his country's presence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip was an "occupation"? Or that he would make this observation: "to keep 3.5 million Palestinians under occupation is bad for Israel and the Palestinians"?

It doesn't matter that he probably would never have spoken those truths were it not for intense U.S. pressure. The United States, along with the European Union, Russia, and the United Nations, make up the so-called Quartet that drew the road map.

Sharon spoke those words knowing he would be harshly criticized by settlers and hardliners in his coalition. Even if Sharon's ultimate intentions are unclear, his words are progress because they keep the dance going.

Any forward step by Sharon or Abbas generates momentum and puts pressure on the dance partner to reciprocate. At the least, the steps enlarge the dance floor.

Though Sharon tried to soften his comments Tuesday, he is now on record acknowledging that Israel is hurt by being in the territories. Abbas is on record that he is willing to change partners, going from old militant terrorist organizations such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, to would-be partners United States and Israel.

Wednesday, when President Bush is to meet in Jordan with Sharon and Abbas, the political stage will be different because the president of the world's mightiest power, a man admired for his resolve, will be involved personally in the negotiations.

Bush's involvement throughout the steps and stumbles is vital. Not only for what the United States can do directly, but for the cooperation it can forge with key Arab states, notably Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Bush will stop in Egypt on the way to Jordan to talk with Arab officials about their roles in the dance.

But it is the United States that is the real dance-master.

President Bush should continue pressuring Sharon to follow the plan even as the prime minister plays to domestic Israeli politics. That means telling him he cannot insist on changes - such as Palestinians taking all the steps before Israel takes any more - that would thwart the ballet.

The United States and Arab allies must pressure Abbas to do more than get a cease-fire promise from Hamas and Islamic Jihad. These groups must be compelled to give up violence.

This road map is based on parallel moves by both sides designed to rebuild trust after years of fighting and failed diplomacy. Bush will need to be as committed in this endeavor as he was to ousting Saddam Hussein.

Sweet-sounding words from Sharon, Abbas and Bush are not enough to keep the dancers in step. Only actions on the ground will do that.