Tuesday, May 20, 2003

George W. defers to his generals in all things. We have his word on this. So maybe he ought to see whether Donald Rumsfeld can find a general who knows how to read maps. They teach map reading at West Point.

The president vows to “move forward” on “the road to peace” in the Middle East, and he sounds like a man who is trying to look forward to the trip no matter where his road map leads.

“We’re still on the road to peace,” George W. told reporters yesterday at the White House. “It’s just going to be a bumpy road, and I’m not going to get off the road until we reach the vision.” A president has to be an optimist, but when even a president starts seeing visions that nobody else sees it may be time to wake him up.

Some of George W.’s most reliable friends set out yesterday, in the wake of the wave of suicide bombings with which our Palestinian friends are celebrating the return to the peace process, to do exactly that.

A group of evangelical Christians and Jewish Zionists, meeting in Washington, drafted a letter urging the president to rein in “the Arabist cabal” at the State Department that is forever pressing the Israelis to kill themselves in behalf of peace. They urged Mr. Bush and his government to force the Palestinians to behave themselves — to quit killing women and children, for starters — before requiring the Israelis to make crucial concessions.

Pat Robertson, who preaches from the bully pulpit of his Christian Broadcasting Network, opened a second front against Foggy Bottom. He declared war on William Burns, the president’s top Middle East diplomat, for undiplomatic remarks Mr. Burns made the other day about Christians. Mr. Robertson called the remarks “insulting.” They were at least dumb, particularly from a man obviously overpaid to be smart.

“The common sense of all peoples will override the conservative and Christian viewpoints once they see the road map’s potential,” Mr. Burns told a peacenik conference in Jerusalem. Mr. Burns, through a State Department spokesman, later sort of said he hadn’t said it, but the denial was not up to the standard of the usual diplomatic lie. Nobody took the denial seriously.

“His name is Burns,” Mr. Robertson told his national television audience yesterday. “I want you to go to the phone and call the State Department … and the White House. They think they are somehow above the political process in America and they can insult more than 60 million Americans. They think that somehow or other the Christian viewpoint on Israel lacks common sense, and once common sense prevails the president will go forward with this kind of road map, which we have already heard is dead in the water.”

What he had just heard, of course, was the news that Ariel Sharon had canceled his trip to Washington to stay in Jerusalem and declare an all-out fight on terror, similar to the all-out fight on terror declared by George W. Bush on September 11. Israel, in fact, has suffered, proportionally, far greater casualties than the United States suffered on that early-autumn day of infamy.

The Israeli prime minister promised to fight the terror “in any way possible,” but resisted his Cabinet’s entreaties to expel Yasser Arafat from the region because he is widely believed to be encouraging the continuation of the violence to undercut the authority of Mahmoud Abbas, the new Palestinian prime minister. But if Arafat is booted out of the West Bank town of Ramallah, where he has been confined like a leper for more than a year, he would tour the capitals of the European Union like a conquering hero, or at least a scourge of Jews. The French might even name a sauce or a particularly stinky cheese for him.

What the Israelis want does not strike a reasonable man as unreasonable. They want to stop the killing first. The road map prescribes “parallel steps,” concessions by both sides. This might work as a plan to settle a dispute between Domino’s and Pizza Hut, or even between Upper Glopp and Lower Slobbovia. But genuine peace talks require honorable men on both sides of a dispute, and George W.’s administration, if not the president himself, insists on looking for honor where there is only dishonor.

The president calls the violent Palestinian response to the resumption of the peace process, so called, “sad and pathetic.” Secretary of State Colin Powell calls the violence “tragic.” But these are words, words, words, and these words are no bargain at a nickel a pound.

The president’s evangelical friends, driven by faith and thus alien to the experience of the State Department weenies who believe in nothing but their own sterile and discredited bigotries, understand what the president’s men do not — that civilized men are dealing with a seventh-century culture that cannot comes to terms with civilization. All the road maps, however exquisitely drawn by all the president’s men, lead only to dead ends.

Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Times.

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