the moment of truth has arrived. For the past four years, the Israeli
prime minister, Ariel Sharon, and President
Bush have used the very existence of Yasir Arafat to justify their
abandonment of the peace process. The Palestinians, for their part,
have used Israel's and America's intractability to continue their
own self-destructive policy of intifada, and Mr. Arafat's immovable
presence as the all-purpose explanation for everything from internal
corruption to suicide bombers.
Now Mr. Arafat
is gone, and so are the excuses.
In Mr. Arafat's
place is a Palestinian leadership that says it wants a smooth and
democratic transfer of power and is prepared to talk if Mr. Sharon
this aren't likely to come again in Mr. Sharon's lifetime. If he
wants to avoid Mr. Arafat's fate - dying as a former hero turned
obstacle to his people's progress - he has to take advantage of
it. As Israel's greatest friend, the United States must do everything
it can to make that happen. Unfortunately, Bush officials are tap-dancing,
spouting the same tired excuses that America can't do anything to
restart the road map to peace until Palestinian extremists end their
violence against Israel, and until Palestine has a leader America
Mr. Arafat was
a democratically elected Arab leader, and it's incumbent on the
United States to do everything possible to make sure that his successor
is chosen by a process that's as open, honest and transparent as
possible. The Palestinians have already asked the United States
for help in holding elections within 60 days. Obviously, that aid
should be given - and the administration should also be willing
to regard the winner who emerges from the voting with the same tolerance
and presumption of legitimacy that it is preparing to give to the
victors in the deeply imperfect balloting that will be going on
in Iraq in January.
in this area has never before been more crucial, and Mr. Bush cannot
fail again. He should make four simple statements: We have an opportunity.
We have a plan. We have a goal. Let's talk.
First on the
list is Mr. Sharon's plan to withdraw the Jewish settlements from
the Gaza Strip. Benjamin Netanyahu and the Israeli far right, who
are fervently opposed to the Gaza withdrawal plan, will now undoubtedly
say that Israel no longer needs this unilateral plan because resuming
the peace process means everything is back on the table. That urge
should be stamped down, and quickly. The key to progress is certainly
not going backward.
In Gaza, the
Palestinians, for their part, will face one of the first big tests
of their post-Arafat leadership. The fact that there are many historical
reasons why the Palestine Liberation Organization's administration
has been both corrupt and inept at management cannot be used as
an excuse for the future. If the United States is obligated to push
the Israelis into extending the withdrawal process to the West Bank,
the Palestinians are obliged to demonstrate that if they get their
own country, they will run it responsibly.
A year ago,
Israelis and Palestinians of good will got together in Geneva and
hammered out a peaceful settlement that, while totally unofficial,
called for the steps that have long been recognized as the only
true hope for a permanent peace. The plan calls for two neighboring
states with two capitals in Jerusalem, the evacuation of most Jewish
settlements and the incorporation of the rest into Israel in exchange
for an equivalent amount of land for Palestine. It also calls for
a limit, to be set by Israel, on the number of Palestinian refugees
who can settle in Israel, and compensation or resettlement for the
This is the
chance for peace that has been approached, then squandered, over
and over, as one party or the other lost the necessary nerve. This
time, everyone will have the same old opportunities to fail. There
are bound to be attacks by Palestinian extremists, which will allow
Mr. Sharon to dig in his heels and say he will negotiate only if
the new leaders crack down on radicals. Mr. Arafat's successors
will be under extraordinary pressure to follow Mr. Arafat's path
by talking to the West about peace while allowing the terrorists
to dictate actions at home.
can help shore up the credibility of moderate reformers by beginning
a total freeze on settlements and beginning to address their calls
to withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza. What better way to empower
moderate leaders than by giving them something that Israel refused
to give Yasir Arafat?
Windows of opportunity
don't open often, particularly in this part of the world. Keeping
this window open will take some tough choices, but the reward could
put us back on the road to a real peace.