Pressure points

November 26, 2003

THE DIPLOMATIC pounding came from all sides.

President Bush, in a state visit to Great Britain, took a harsh swipe at Israel for its construction of a security fence. Russia pushed the United Nations to adopt the "road map" to peace as a binding resolution. The International Committee of the Red Cross said it would cease emergency food services to Palestinians, forcing Israel to meet the need. And four retired Israeli security officials called for the army to withdraw from the West Bank or face escalating attacks.

Pressure is mounting for a change in the numbing violence and political stalemate of the nearly 4-year-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But stern words from the president and doom-and-gloom warnings from former intelligence chiefs won't be enough to move this misadventure forward. A confluence of forces is necessary to end the attack-and-retaliate cycle of violence and renew peace talks.

Washington has to engage itself seriously in forcing a resumption of a political track. Russia and Europe, the other supporters of the road map, have to lend more than goodwill to the cause. The citizenry, Israelis and Palestinians, have to demand a change in the political viewpoints that control daily lives. Israelis have to ask themselves: Are we any closer to achieving a secure future? The question for Palestinians: Are we any closer to achieving an independent state in 2005?

The answer to both questions is a resounding no. Instead, the death toll in their communities steadily climbs. More than 800 Israelis and 2,600 Palestinians have died in suicide bombings and military attacks since hostilities began in September 2000. The Palestinian economy is in ruins; one in five Israelis lives below the poverty line.

The Palestinian struggle has been exacerbated by a reliance on an ineffectual and politically bankrupt leader, Yasser Arafat. And yet Mr. Arafat's popularity remains high. Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia, a skilled negotiator familiar to Israel, lacks control of the security forces needed to rein in militants. His attempt to negotiate a cease-fire among the groups may in fact rely on Israeli concessions he cannot deliver.

Surely, Mr. Qureia and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon recognize the need to find common ground - they have agreed to meet, perhaps as early as this week - on a comprehensive cease-fire, restrictions in the Palestinian areas, settlement expansion and fence construction. Meanwhile, proponents of two alternate peace plans are appealing directly to Israelis and Palestinians to speak out. Households in Israel and the territories are receiving copies of the so-called Geneva Plan, which weighs in at 50 pages. The one-page second proposal, promoted as "The People's Voice," is collecting thousands of Israeli and Palestinian signatures in support of a new initiative. All should keep up the pressure.

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