Next week’s visit to Washington by Prime Minister Sharon is more than just a courtesy call. President Bush opened a new page in Middle East history this month with the publication of his road map to Israeli-Palestinian peace. If he can persuade the two sides to begin implementing it, there may be some hope of bringing some sanity to that wounded land. That will involve some heavy lifting. The president is starting with Sharon. But his work doesn’t end there.
The road map isn’t a plan for peace — certainly not within the three-year time frame envisioned in the road map. The goal is regaining control of the streets, tamping down passions, giving people on both sides some reason to hope and setting up a process that might lead to peace — or at least an absence of war. It’s just a modest first step toward peace. But right now, that’s a lot.
As the process has inched forward, an awful lot of attention has been devoted to Israeli settlement construction, which Palestinians — and not only Palestinians — see as lying at the heart of the current conflict. The more Israeli presence takes root and spreads in the West Bank, the more difficult it becomes to disentangle the two peoples. As we’ve often noted, that deprives both peoples of what they most want. Palestinians lose hope of attaining sovereignty on a contiguous, viable parcel of land. Israelis are denied the possibility of defending themselves along a fortified border, and ultimately could lose the very essence of Zionism, which is sovereignty in a democratic Jewish state. For all those reasons, a freeze on further settlement expansion is an essential step.
It’s dangerous, however, to lose sight of the steps required on the other side. The road map requires the Palestinian Authority, right at the outset of Phase 1, to issue “an unequivocal statement reiterating Israel’s right to exist in peace and security.” We’re still waiting for that. It also requires the P.A. to “undertake visible efforts on the ground to arrest, disrupt and restrain individuals and groups” that plan and conduct attacks on Israelis, and to dismantle “terrorist capabilities and infrastructures.” It seems the Palestinians aren’t even planning to try that one. They say they’re aiming to achieve a cease-fire with Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which is not the same thing as arresting, disrupting and dismantling them. Israelis worry that a cease-fire would simply allow the terrorists to regroup and rearm. That would be intolerable.
There’s a lot of work to be done on both sides. Stopping settlement construction is part of it. So is stopping terrorism.