The Israeli-Palestinian Horizon

Friday, June 14, 2002; Page A30

THE BUSH administration is still mired in internal deliberations over how to approach the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but the president and his policymakers are at least repeating one common idea. Any initiative, they say, must combine attempts to reform the Palestinian self-government and reorganize its security apparatus with some kind of political plan that offers hope of progress toward a peaceful settlement. Everyone agrees the Palestinian reform must be comprehensive, aimed at creating an honest administration that offers Palestinians the prospect of responsible government and Israelis the promise of real security. As a practical matter, that means a shift of power away from Yasser Arafat, even if he remains the formal leader of the Palestinian movement. That's the easy part, readily agreed on by Israel, Arab states, European governments and many leading Palestinians.

The hard part is deciding how ambitious, and how specific, a U.S.-articulated political vision should be. The difficulty creates a dangerous temptation: to simply drop what officials call "the political horizon" from the policy. By playing down any political scheme, President Bush may hope to dodge the deep disparity between the proposals he has been hearing from Arab leaders on the one hand and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on the other. In talks with the president last weekend, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak reiterated the Arab view that the United States should commit itself to creating a Palestinian state along lines close to those of Israel's pre-1967 borders, and to a timetable for achieving it. Secretary of State Colin Powell has now made public his support for a related idea, recognizing a transitional Palestinian state in part of the West Bank and Gaza while a final settlement is negotiated. But Mr. Sharon has something entirely different in mind: negotiations that lead only to "a long-term interim agreement," with consideration of Palestinian statehood and the continuing Israeli settlement of the West Bank and Gaza Strip indefinitely postponed. Siding with either party risks a backlash in the region, and maybe political trouble at home. And for the moment, judging by the statements of his spokesman, Mr. Bush seems unwilling even to back his own secretary of state. Yet by trying to duck the political problem -- as he often seems inclined to do -- the president will effectively side with Mr. Sharon. Though he speaks of a political process, the Israeli leader mainly seems interested in postponement.

Some in Washington counsel that Mr. Sharon's strategy, whatever its underlying motivations, is anyway the pragmatic course. Mr. Arafat, they note, is already using the slogan of Palestinian reform to consolidate his own domineering position; given Mr. Arafat's repeated failure to live up to his commitments, Mr. Sharon's intractability and the deep personal enmity between them, no U.S. political initiative is likely to gain traction. Best to focus efforts in the coming months on Palestinian reform and practical measures to reduce violence, such as Israel's construction of security fences. This modest course sounds appealing; but the danger is that the administration will repeat its failure of the past year, when its attempts to avoid brokering a settlement between the Israelis and Palestinians contributed to a disastrous spiral of violence. Creating a genuine "political horizon" will be hard; but a failure to do so will only doom any attempt to bring real change to Palestinian self-government, or to avoid greater bloodshed. The Bush administration must try.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company