Finding the way

March 16, 2003

WHEN PRESIDENT Bush hurried out to the Rose Garden on Friday to announce that the United States was ready to present a "road map" to peace in the Middle East, it wasn't hard to imagine that he may have had an agenda in mind other than that of an agreement between Israelis and Palestinians.

With war in Iraq looming, he may have been trying to reassure the Arab nations of his interest in their concerns, or perhaps he wanted to provide more cover for Britain's Tony Blair, who has been urging him to engage in the Middle East issue, or maybe he hoped to curry favor with members of the European Union and with Russia, which are partners in what might now be called the road-map process. The timing alone suggests that Iraq could not have been far from his mind.

It doesn't matter. American presidential attention to the Middle East is always a welcome development.

What does matter is this: that Mr. Bush, whatever his motivations may have been, follows through. There are a lot of feet he's going to have to hold to the fire.

Mr. Bush said he will go forward with the peace plan as soon as he is confident that the new Palestinian prime minister will be able to wield real authority - that, in other words, he won't be Yasser Arafat's puppet. Mr. Arafat has proposed his deputy, Mahmoud Abbas, for the job, and he may be approved this week.

Mr. Abbas is an interesting choice; he has spoken out publicly against Palestinian violence, arguing that it has backfired against the Palestinians themselves. He has said that he, too, wants to make sure he'll have real power before he accepts the prime minister's post.

The Israelis reacted positively to Mr. Bush's announcement, but they may prove to be resistant. The road map is certain to call for an Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian areas re-occupied in the past two years. It will mandate a freeze in further Jewish settlements on the West Bank and in Gaza. The goal is the creation of a Palestinian state, and a formal peace treaty within, say, two years. Yet two of the parties in the coalition government of Ariel Sharon are, in principle, opposed to these provisions.

For some time the Bush administration has seemed as though it were in lockstep with Mr. Sharon, and because the president has taken a personal dislike to Mr. Arafat, Washington was barely giving the Palestinian Authority the time of day. That's got to change - and Friday's announcement held the promise that it will be changing.

But all this is just a preview of the first step on the long road to peace. Does Washington have the attention span to keep at it? An occasional Rose Garden photo op isn't good enough. Even with an invasion of Iraq pending, the time has come for the Bush administration to show that it is serious about the future of the Middle East - and will do the hard work that's going to be needed.

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