Try try again / A Mideast peace push that just might succeed

Wednesday, June 18, 2003

The grinding effort to achieve an enduring accord between Israelis and Palestinians has exhausted a long line of special envoys. Still, it must be pursued in spite of serial setbacks because the alternative -- endless and escalating violence -- is intolerable.

Most recently, President Bush traveled to the region, raising hopes of progress, which were then confounded by a period of fighting that produced casualties on both sides, including civilians -- at least 20 deaths on the Israeli side and 30 on the Palestinian side. For the moment things are a little quieter, and diplomacy continues.

Whether it will gain any traction depends to a great extent on what happens with Hamas, the most militant of the Palestinian elements. Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas must somehow bring Hamas into the fold if he is ever to rein in attacks on Israelis, a precondition to any agreement.

For the Israelis, Hamas is one of at least three Palestinian organizations that should simply be put out of business -- put to death, one might say -- through military action in the West Bank and Gaza, even if that requires assassinations of Hamas leaders.

Mr. Abbas, of course, cannot acknowledge this common objective with the Israelis and cooperate with them in bringing it about without failing abjectly in his political mission among the Palestinians -- to bring as many of them as possible into an accord. If he is viewed as Israel's man, not only his political viability but his life could be in danger.

So is there any hope? Or is this "Bush round" of the Middle East peace process already on the rocks, only two weeks after Mr. Bush's personal intervention? Battered American diplomats sometimes say a cease-fire in the Middle East is sometimes simply a chance to reload.

That could prove to be the case this time as well. "Confidence-building measures" on both sides have been minimal and grudging. The Israelis pull down a few, largely uninhabited settler outposts. "Responsible" Palestinian leaders publicly pull their hair at the recalcitrant attitudes of members of Hamas and other militant groups, while Yasser Arafat continues to meddle, seeking to preserve his relevance.

Yet the situation is not hopeless. There are two positive signs. The first is that, after meetings between Israeli and Palestinian security officials, there is a real possibility that Israeli forces will pull out of the northern part of Gaza and Bethlehem in the West Bank and turn over security in those areas to the Palestinians.

The other hopeful sign is the arrival of a new resident U.S. envoy, John S. Wolf, who as ambassador to Malaysia established a reputation as a creative diplomat who gets things done.

The work itself remains worth doing. President Bush has put his reputation on the line this time. That can make a big difference. But it would be nice if the Israelis and Palestinians were both thinking about how to move the process forward, rather than seeing the latest U.S. initiative as simply another well-intentioned intervention in a dispute that will never really be resolved.


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