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Following the Map

If nothing else, President Bush’s announced plan to release his “road map” to Israeli-Palestinian peace gives the lie to those paranoid theories about a Jewish conspiracy driving America into war with Iraq. According to the conspiracy-mongers, invading Iraq was supposed to upset the Middle East apple cart in a way that would leave Israel free to ignore Palestinian claims and pursue its expansionist dreams unhindered. Bush’s statement, if it is sincere, points in the opposite direction: toward increased momentum for negotiation and compromise, even as the crisis with Iraq continues.

The Sharon government and its allies here were plainly caught off guard by the president’s Rose Garden announcement of the road map last week. Prime Minister Sharon had thought he had a promise from the administration that the plan would not be released until after the Iraq crisis. His hope, Jerusalem insiders say, was that the defeat of Saddam Hussein would have left Arab leaders confused and divided and discredited their allies in Europe. Israel would then have been in a far stronger position to negotiate for its vision of what just about everyone — Sharon included — understands will be the ultimate outcome of the Israeli-Palestinian confrontation: a territorial compromise leading to Palestinian statehood.

Delay also served another interest of Sharon’s: pushing for changes in the road map that make it more compatible with Israel’s strategic goals. The most important of these is the issue of “sequentiality”: reframing the steps toward peace so that Israel is not required to undertake major concessions until the Palestinians have fulfilled their obligations to reform their governance and root out terrorism. The current version of the road map reportedly requires Israel and the Palestinians to act simultaneously.

What Sharon was not counting on, it appears, was the success of the European-led effort to reorganize the Palestinian Authority and reduce Yasser Arafat’s power by appointing a Palestinian prime minister. The naming of Abu Mazen as prime minister-designate means that the Palestinians have taken an important first step toward reform. Israel will now face a credible negotiating partner — not a friend, to be sure, but a man known to Israel’s security establishment for decades as someone they can work with. By making their move, the Palestinians in effect have given Israel the sequentiality it asked for. That put the ball back in Israel’s court. And so Bush put the next phase in motion.

It is now clear that while Sharon and his allies do have considerable leverage inside the Beltway, they are not the only team on the field. The administration has to balance Israel’s goals against the very urgent needs of Britain and its prime minister, Tony Blair, who has been the administration’s single most important ally in the global confrontation now underway. Blair is under enormous pressure to show his party and his public that the Iraq confrontation is not a war of the West against Islam or the Arab world. Progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front is all but universally regarded as the most credible way of making that clear.

Some friends of Israel have been arguing this week that releasing the road map would amount to sacrificing Israel in order to save Blair’s skin. That is an insult, not just to Bush and Blair, but to Israel. Moving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict back to the negotiating table is very much in Israel’s interest. Following the road map is a good way to do it.

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