Sharon takes step on path to peace

Wednesday, May 28, 2003

IN VIEW OF Ariel Sharon's long history of giving no quarter in disputes with his Arab neighbors, skepticism is justified about the Israeli prime minister's embrace of the "road map" to peace with the Palestinians. But by steering his hawkish government into seeing the inevitability of Palestinian statehood, and the end of "occupation" in Arab territories with their 3.5 million inhabitants, he takes an extraordinary step in the right direction.

President Bush, the most powerful sponsor of the peace plan because of Israel's need for U.S. support, must keep up the pressure for a successful outcome. Sharon was trapped by that need, and by Israel's severe economic and political problems, into going along with the mediators' broad outline for completing a Palestinian-Israeli settlement by 2005. The Palestinians had already accepted the road map.

Bush is expected to go to the Middle East early next month for summits with the Israeli and Palestinian premiers, and then with Arab leaders, to build support for the process. The United States in its mediatory role is joined by the United Nations, the European Union and Russia.

Longtime Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is trying to reclaim a prominent role after being eclipsed as the top Palestinian negotiator by the new prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas. The discredited and unpredictable Arafat must be kept on the sideline.

The opening phase of the prescribed timetable could be crucial. The Palestinian leadership must restate its acceptance of Israel's existence and call for "an immediate and unconditional cease-fire to end armed activity and all acts of violence against Israelis anywhere" -- thus heading off the kinds of terrorism that helped abort past peace efforts. That means halting the attacks by agents of such groups as Hamas and Islamic Jihad. The Israelis in turn would stop violence and "incitement" against Palestinians.

While both sides accept the mediators' broad sketch of a path to peace, plenty of specific issues await to trip the unwary. Sharon's government has reservations with the road map. He has not said whether he would agree to a complete withdrawal of Israeli occupation forces -- or whether he would consider dismantling Jewish settlements. The Palestinians want total sovereignty in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Other issues that have seemed insoluble to date include Palestinian claims of a right of return for refugees displaced by the creation of Israel, and the complicated status of Jerusalem. The road map calls for a "just, fair and realistic" refugee agreement ("realistic" might rule out a flood of millions of Arabs overwhelming the Jewishness of Israel), and a Jerusalem that "protects the religious interests of Jews, Christians and Muslims worldwide."

Altogether, a tall order, but one deserving the utmost effort of the world's only superpower to achieve.

©2003 San Francisco Chronicle