Sunday, June 1, 2003

Bush trip: Palestinian state

Press for peace

George Bush's trip to the Mideast shifts his war-dominated presidency into a new phase of high-stakes peacemaking. He goes in search of what has eluded many other U.S. presidents: a lasting settlement of the "Palestinian problem."

Bush is out-front in his endorsement of a "two-state solution," and he is putting his personal prestige behind the U.N.-backed April 30 peace plan known as the "road map." It laid out the accelerated steps Israel and the Palestinians need to take to end the killing and allow two separate states to co-exist side by side in peace.

Even the most optimistic recognize the chances for success are a long shot, but Bush deserves credit for prodding the two sides to embrace an alternative to endless conflict. The United States is still the indispensable nation with the clout to broker a peace deal, and even the attempt to secure a viable Palestinian state robs terrorists of one of their chief grievances against us.

It helps, at this moment in history, that the Palestinians can finally send a leader other than Yasser Arafat to the three-way summit in Jordan on June 4. Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, however weak, seems committed to ending the suicide bombings and Palestinian terrorism, while Arafat continues to play the obstructionist. It remains to be seen if the U.S. and Israeli policy of totally bypassing Arafat will work, but ever since the 1993 Oslo accords, Arafat has shown he lacks the will or the ability to make peace.

Bush's new "road map" calls for trust-building concessions on a speeded-up three-year time-line, while it leaves unresolved such previous deal-breakers as Palestinians' "right of return" to Israel. Step No. 1 is for the Palestinians to enforce an unconditional cease-fire and for Israel to commit to a two-state solution. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the Israeli government voted for the individual phases of the plan rather than for the overall plan. It would lead to a provisional Palestinian government in Gaza and the West Bank, with borders to be negotiated. Israel would dismantle settlement outposts built since March 2001. Full Palestinian sovereignty would conclude the trust-building stages.

Palestinian Prime Minister Abbas pledged he would seek commitments from the Hamas faction to cease their campaign of suicide bombings and other terrorist violence. No one expects terrorist attacks to disappear instantly, but a stable, functioning Palestinian government could provide the framework for further progress.

President Bush begins his peace initiative at the G8 economic summit this weekend in Evian, France. Before he left Washington he made conciliatory statements to put the rancor behind us over European opposition to the U.S. war in Iraq. But the higher-stakes summit this time is in Jordan. Progress at the peace summit could deliver huge dividends in winning the war against terrorism.

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