Obstacles on the road map



THE starting point of the "road map" to peace in the Middle East was stained by a suicide bombing at a Tel Aviv nightspot on Wednesday. If Israel and the Palestinians are going to make it all the way along that road to peace, they'll need the level-headedness to steer around the obstacles that extremists throw in their path.

Undeterred by the Tel Aviv bombing, the United States formally presented the road map to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Then the United States and the other authors of the plan - the European Union, the United Nations and Russia - handed it to Mahmoud Abbas, the moderate new Palestinian prime minister. It was Mr. Abbas' welcome accession to power that paved the way for release of the road map, which would lead to creation of a Palestinian state in three years.

Last week, Palestinian President Yasser Arafat played his usual game of obstruction, threatening to block Mr. Abbas' new cabinet. In the end, he backed down, for once making a decision that was genuinely in the interest of the Palestinian people.

The emergence of Mr. Abbas represents a diplomatic victory for Mr. Sharon's long effort to write Mr. Arafat out of the picture - a strategy supported by President George W. Bush. More importantly, it is a victory for moderation and reform in the Palestinian community.

The other new dynamic in the Middle East is the emergence of the United States as the uncontested power after the demolition of Saddam Hussein's regime.

This is the first time in two centuries that one nation is totally dominant in the Middle East, says Michael Doran, a Middle East expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. Until the end of the Cold War, Arab countries could run to the Soviet Union for help against the United States. After the Cold War, Saddam tried to fill the Soviets' shoes as the chief impediment to U.S. power. Now the United States can exercise its muscle - or merely threaten to do so - on a country like Syria with great effect.

With that power comes responsibility. While always protecting Israel's security, the United States must press the Israelis to stop the expansion of settlements and to begin to withdraw from those erected during the last three years. New and expanded settlements are an inflammatory impediment to peace. Mr. Bush will have to push the Israeli leader further than Mr. Sharon would like, and further than Mr. Bush's political aides might wish. At the same time, the United States should pressure Arab governments to stop providing the moral support that legitimizes suicide bombings.

Americans often assume that peace in the Middle East is inevitable. It may not be. Israelis daily live in the shadow of terrorism; Palestinians live in under the weight of occupation. The sense of grievance is deep and memories are as long as the history of the region.

Still, the road map is the best opportunity for peace in at least three years - if the two sides vow not to be knocked off the road by every extremist who straps on a belt of explosives.