Moving forward in the Mideast

May 05, 2002

GEORGE W. BUSH and his top diplomats are seizing the moment, and in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the moment is now. The secretary of state is moving ahead on convening a summer Mideast conference with international sponsorship that could provide the first substantive talks between the two warring sides in 19 months of fighting.

It's the latest in a series of steps taken by the Bush administration, with help from Saudi Arabia and Great Britain, that have resulted in the release of besieged Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and a withdrawal of Israeli troops from the last Palestinian cities. All the president's men finally appear on board with what needs to get done, and their diligence in pursuing these thorny and tiresome problems warrants praise.

Now, if everyone else will exhibit the same commitment, perhaps true progress can be achieved. But there's no guarantee of that.

Mr. Arafat, finally freed from his fetid and demolished headquarters in Ramallah, toured ravaged areas of the city in a triumphant mood. He's good in this role of embattled leader, defender of the Palestinian cause. But Mr. Arafat can't spend his days parading around the West Bank with his bodyguards. He needs to demonstrate that he is for a peaceful resolution of this crisis and against the resumption of violence by Palestinian militias. To do otherwise would alienate his allies abroad and further erode his dismal standing with the Bush administration.

He needs to gather his deputies and map out a plan for rebuilding his government and his cities. The United States and others have pledged to bring humanitarian aid to the impoverished populace.

The actions of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will be watched as well. The hard-line former general has agreed to Mr. Bush's requests in the past week to ease his control of Palestinian areas. He has acquiesced to the president's wishes even as the hawks around him have cried foul. The prime minister has to maintain restraint.

Mr. Sharon says he will be bringing a new peace plan to Washington when he visits next week. But a "long-term interim agreement" conjures up the failed promises of the Oslo accords that Mr. Sharon detested. And it's hard to imagine that such an agreement could provide a reason for Palestinians to forsake suicide bombings and sniper attacks for peace. If Mr. Sharon is firm on his decision not to discuss Israeli settlements for a year, then no peace plan he proposes will offer the incentives that will change Palestinian attitudes and actions.

At his ranch with the Saudi crown prince, Mr. Bush conveyed his expectations for one and all in this maelstrom, and he obviously understood what was expected of him. The coming weeks will require his administration to hold fast to both.

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