- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 13, 2003

The long and bloodstained quest for Middle East peace has a way of drawing in even the most reluctant of American leaders.

Two weeks ago, President Bush entered the Israeli-Palestinian thicket that had lured and then ensnared a long list of his predecessors, going at least as far back as Jimmy Carter’s administration.

With a military victory in Iraq and a new Palestinian leader seeking to supersede three decades of Yasser Arafat’s autocratic rule, an invigorated Mr. Bush has outlined his vision for the creation of a Palestinian state, in exchange for a secure and sovereign Israel, before his first term expires 20 months from now.

In issuing his “road map” to peace on April 30, the president signaled that he saw in new Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, also called Abu Mazan, a new opportunity for ending a half-century of enmity and war in the Holy Land.

Some analysts say the best for which Mr. Bush can hope, in the near term at least, is simply to build a new framework for negotiations. A spiral of violence since September 2000 has killed more than 2,370 Palestinians and 780 Israelis.

“We don’t have a peace process now, we have a war process,” said Dennis Ross, who served as President Clinton’s chief Middle East envoy.

“At this point, the most important thing to signal is an openness on our side to work with the two sides,” said Mr. Ross, director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “The proof of being serious is you stick with it.”

Pressing for Middle East peace will require Mr. Bush to lean on Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon while he pressures Mr. Abbas to crack down on terrorist organizations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Mr. Bush’s road map calls for Mr. Sharon to offer an olive branch to the Palestinians through good-faith steps like easing the military occupation of Palestinian areas in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and ending Jewish settlements there.

Some Middle East scholars are skeptical that Mr. Bush will expend the political capital required to win Mr. Sharon’s cooperation.

“It’s hard to believe that we’re going to do this,” said Michael Hudson, professor of international relations and Arab studies at Georgetown University. “We could do it,” he said, “but will we?”

Mr. Bush is the latest in a long line of American leaders to vest presidential prestige in the elusive quest for peace. While success would go a long way toward securing Mr. Bush a place in history as a first-class statesman, the stakes, and the prospects for failure, are high.

Pressuring Israel always has been politically risky, as both Mr. Carter and former President George Bush have learned the hard way.

Both were defeated in their re-election bids for various reasons. Neither, though, was aided by pro-Israel and conservative Christian groups, who perceived that Mr. Carter and Mr. Bush had pressured Israel to make excessive concessions to the Palestinians.

“They took a lesson that you don’t go out of your way to alienate a strong, well-organized, highly motivated constituency,” said William Quandt, who served as Middle East adviser on Mr. Carter’s National Security Council.

With Mr. Bush enjoying strong public support for his approach to national security and foreign affairs, his main political challenge between now and Election Day is to shore up the backing of his core conservative constituents and hold the famously fickle center amid economic uncertainty at home.

The last thing he wants to do, said Mr. Hudson, is to risk alienating core constituents and swing voters by applying excessive pressure on Mr. Sharon.

“The costs will be greater than the benefits in the political arena in the United States,” said Mr. Hudson.

But Mr. Bush has forged a career largely by playing against the political odds when he senses a chance to succeed where others predict failure.

He told aides privately last month that he was primed to press for an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement and that he saw both Mr. Abbas and Mr. Sharon as reliable partners in that quest. His record in Afghanistan and Iraq, at least, suggests that his intention is a sound guide to his actions.

Yet history has opened the door to peace in the past, only to have it slammed shut by events or personalities.

The same day the new peace plan was delivered to Mr. Sharon and Mr. Abbas, a suicide bomber killed three Israelis in Tel Aviv. Israeli forces killed 13 Palestinians the next day in a Gaza raid. The bloodshed was a grim reminder of the vicious cycle of attacks and counterattacks since the collapse of the last round of peace talks 2 years ago.

“We have got to get beyond this period of suicide bombings and retaliatory actions,” Secretary of State Colin L. Powell told reporters after the two attacks.

“We can’t let these sorts of incidents immediately contaminate the road map or contaminate the process that we are now involved in,” said Mr. Powell, who spent May 3 in Damascus, pressing Syrian President Bashar Assad to end support for Hezbollah, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, militant anti-Israel groups.

“We can no longer do nothing,” said Mr. Powell, who traveled to the region last weekend. The secretary of state met Sunday with Mr. Sharon, then separately with Mr. Abbas, but made little apparent headway.

After meeting with Mr. Powell, Mr. Sharon repeated his position that a “genuine” Palestinian crackdown on militants was “the key to progress.” The Palestinians countered that they never would be able to disarm radical groups if the Israelis offered nothing except a few symbolic gestures.

Mr. Sharon’s office said Monday that he had ruled out a freeze of settlement activity during his meeting with Mr. Powell.

The road map calls on both parties to take meaningful actions but offers no specifics. The borders of a Palestinian state, the future of Jerusalem, the right of Palestinian refugees to return to Israeli lands, the fate of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and other matters are left for the Palestinians and Israelis to resolve.

If the two sides are to move forward, it will fall to Mr. Bush to fill in some of the blanks and induce the long-feuding foes to work on tough compromises.

“You get down to the parties. They are still very far apart on the substantive issues and the road map does very little to hint as to how those issues ought to be dealt with,” said Mr. Quandt, who helped guide Mr. Carter through the 1978 negotiations that produced the Egyptian-Israeli peace accord at Camp David.

“The problem is still with the destination,” said Mr. Quandt. “The road map, without a destination, is just kind of wandering around in circles.”

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