Two advocates for Israel

September 07, 2004

AT AN "Ask President Bush" get-together in Nashua, N.H., last week (the sort of event not known for tough questioning), a young woman confronted the candidate about his support for Israel's prime minister: "How can Ariel Sharon be a man of peace, as you've said, if he causes death and torture among innocent Palestinians?" It was a twofer for Mr. Bush - a chance to reiterate his war on terrorism message and remind supporters of Israel how much he is on their side.

"First of all, Ariel Sharon is defending his country against terrorist attacks, just like we will," Mr. Bush replied. "We would hope the Palestinians would have that same kind of democracy."

How would Democratic challenger John Kerry have answered the question? Not much differently. He would have focused on Israel's right to defend itself, but perhaps pointed out that Palestinians must embrace new leaders to secure a free, independent state. The president and his challenger have similar views on the most polarizing issue in the Middle East - the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Both endorse a strong, secure Israel.

But Mr. Kerry, who has a demonstrable record in support of Israel, could distinguish himself from Mr. Bush if he pledged to use the power of the presidency to wrest changes from the two sides that would lead to a resolution of the current crisis there.

As president, Mr. Bush has put forth a comprehensive peace plan - a two-state solution with clear goals that require Palestinians to shut down militant groups dealing in terror and Israelis to halt Jewish settlements.

And the president deserves credit for that plan. But he lacks a strategy to achieve it, and that has been his critical failing. Mr. Bush has gone further to support Israel ideologically than any recent president. But that hasn't meant peace for Israelis.

The president has accepted Mr. Sharon's claim to West Bank settlements outside Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, ensuring that tracts of disputed land won't be up for negotiation in a peace deal. Israel's supporters say Mr. Bush was simply articulating the inevitable, but his public pronouncement amounted to an abandonment of America's long-standing role as honest peace broker. More to the point, it undercut Palestinian aspirations in any negotiated settlement. With the Palestinian leadership in disarray (and nearly mutinous this summer), the conflict drags on.

If Mr. Kerry were to get tough with both Israel and the Palestinians and actively seek Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's retirement, that, too, would distinguish him from Mr. Bush. But candidate Kerry has been short on specifics.

We welcome his call to restore American leadership in the Middle East, a task that would require a president to actively engage in a conflict that enflames Islamic militancy, to think creatively on intractable issues and to take political risks to reinvigorate a defunct peace process and advance it.

That kind of leadership is essential to resolving the Israel-Palestinian conflict, stopping Iran's march toward nuclear power, encouraging democratic reforms by Arab leaders and confronting the anti-Americanism raging in the Islamic world today. Whoever occupies the White House must exhibit the will to meet these challenges.

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