A Failure of Will

Sunday, June 2, 2002; Page B06

THE DISPATCH of two senior U.S. officials to meet Israelis and Palestinians last week has served to underline the fact that the Bush administration is continuing to delay and dither over its strategy rather than seize a fragile moment of opportunity. Assistant Secretary of State William Burns and CIA Director George Tenet are said to have a mandate to "assess" and "listen" to the parties, not push any new U.S. initiatives. That's largely because President Bush's team here in Washington cannot agree on what to do. There is consensus on some easy points, such as the necessity of reforming Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority and pushing it to create a security service that is willing and able to stop suicide bombings. It's generally accepted, too, that neither those reforms nor an end to violence will be possible without some larger political process. But a credible peace initiative would require not just pushing on the weak and unpopular Palestinians but also seeking to move the Israeli government of Ariel Sharon -- and that is where this administration invariably seems to stall. And so, downgrading and delaying its own proposal for a regional conference, it contents itself with micro-missions aimed more at managing than resolving the conflict.

As the administration should have learned earlier this year, such timidity merely invites disaster. Though the scale of Israeli-Palestinian violence, as grimly measured in deaths, has diminished in the past few weeks, Palestinian attacks and Israeli reprisals are once again picking up -- and a new leap in the scale of bloodshed may be imminent. Recently Israeli security forces narrowly averted at least two major attacks, including the attempted bombing of a fuel depot near Tel Aviv, which could have killed hundreds. Palestinian extremists appear to be quickly regrouping following Israel's destructive invasion of West Bank towns; if they succeed in carrying out another mass murder of Israelis, full-scale warfare could resume. That, in turn, would freeze or simply kill the promising developments of the past few weeks, including the appearance of a strong internal Palestinian reform movement and the most aggressive steps yet by Arab states to stop the violence.

Some administration officials suggest that while President Bush is on record supporting the goal of side-by-side Israeli and Palestinian states, the terms and means of reaching that outcome cannot easily be worked out. But there is no need to reinvent the wheel. Not just the outlines but most of the specifics of an Israeli-Palestinian settlement were elaborated nearly 18 months ago by Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, based on a set of proposals by President Clinton. Those terms or something close to them would likely be embraced by majorities of both peoples as well as by Arab states, if accompanied by an end to violence and reliable guarantees. That is because there is no other plausible formula for a long-term settlement, and the history of the past decade has shown that interim arrangements offer no stability. For the Israelis and Palestinians, and for the United States, achieving peace requires not new ideas but simple political will.

The United States could lead the way by committing itself to a two-state solution broadly based on last year's agreements, along with a process and time line to reach it that begins with Palestinian reforms, elections and strong new security guarantees. To be sure, the necessary performance on the Palestinian side won't be possible unless the reforms and elections serve to shift power from Mr. Arafat to others, and Arab states fully commit themselves to peace with Israel. But progress will also require President Bush to induce Mr. Sharon to budge from his refusal even to contemplate a final settlement, or discuss such issues as Palestinian statehood and the removal of Jewish settlements. Persuading Mr. Sharon would be difficult, and some administration officials fear that pressuring Israel's government would be politically costly at home. But if the administration continues to duck the challenge, it will condemn itself to face an unending series of Arab-Israeli crises.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company