- The Washington Times - Monday, April 28, 2003

It remains to be seen whether Yasser Arafat's acquiescence to demands made by Prime Minister-designate Mahmoud Abbas on the formation of a new Palestinian Authority Cabinet will result in an end to terrorism a central condition of President Bush's Middle East peace plan, which envisions the creation of an independent Palestinian state next to Israel. We remain skeptical. But the administration and, most remarkably of all, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, are expressing cautious optimism about the new Cabinet formed by Mr. Abbas, and in particular his decision to appoint Mohammed Dahlan (the former Palestinian security boss in Gaza) to serve as the PA's new security chief over Mr. Arafat's objections.
Mr. Bush is quite right to push ahead with his peace plan at the present time. He understands that the period immediately following the U.S.-led coalition's victory in Iraq is the best time to move forward with an ambitious proposal for Israeli-Palestinian peace, a goal of Democratic and Republican administrations for well over half a century. In an attempt to build upon the partial allied victory in the 1991 Gulf War, the first President Bush, working in conjunction with the European Union and Moscow, embarked on his own ambitious plan for peace, beginning with a conference in Madrid that October. That initiative evolved into the 1993 Oslo peace agreement signed by Mr. Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
The peace process which almost certainly would have resulted in the creation of a Palestinian state collapsed after Mr. Arafat rejected a compromise proposal made in 2000 by President Clinton and accepted by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak that would have given the Palestinians an independent, contiguous state in 97 percent of the West Bank and allowed Palestinian refugees to resettle there. Mr. Arafat, who put forward no alternative proposal of his own, gave the coup de grace to Oslo by giving a green light to a campaign of suicide attacks and other forms of anti-Israel terrorism that continues until the present day.
Mr. Bush is betting that the peace process of 2003 will yield a better result than the one which started 12 years ago. The president is a determined man. The facts on the ground have changed, and perhaps he can succeed. For one thing, the 1991 war, while successful in driving Iraq out of Kuwait, left Saddam Hussein in power. The war which ended this month removed the Iraqi dictator (arguably the most dangerous Middle East rejectionist) from the scene and may result in the development of an Iraqi regime willing to make peace with Israel. The president is also hoping that the ascension of the more pragmatic Mr. Abbas will marginalize Mr. Arafat a fervent revolutionary who is unwilling to stop utilizing terror to advance his political goals.
There have also been changes on the Israeli side. While never an enthusiastic supporter of the peace process, Mr. Sharon is very different from Yitzhak Shamir, the hawk who led the Jewish state into the Madrid talks. While Mr. Shamir was basically unyielding on settlements and Palestinian statehood, Mr. Sharon has indicated a willingness to compromise on both. The Israeli leader is far more likely to bargain in earnest with Mr. Abbas (someone Mr. Sharon has met and believes to be a pragmatic nationalist that Israel can negotiate seriously with) than Mr. Arafat, for whom Mr. Sharon has a strong personal distaste.
A cautionary note is in order. As former House Speaker Newt Gingrich pointed out last week, Mr. Bush would have to overcome the serious flaws of the new peace process: The invention of a Quartet to oversee Israeli-Palestinian negotiations creates a real risk that Washington's partners Russia, the European Union and the United Nations could team up and outvote the United States on critical issues.
The quest for peace in the Middle East has broken the hearts of statesmen for centuries. What we don't doubt for a minute is Mr. Bush's determination to press forward and achieve success.

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