A new era

December 31, 2004

AS PRESCRIBED in the U.S.-backed "road map" to peace, 2005 was to be the year that Palestinians established a state of their own. But as is often the case in this intractable conflict, Palestinians for much of 2004 were neither equipped nor inclined to meet the demands for establishing an independent state. Israel's military occupation remained entrenched after four years of bombings and attacks. The Palestinian leadership remained in disarray with no legitimate means to confront the Israeli juggernaut. But recent events have enhanced the prospects for peace in such substantive ways that 2005 may yet profoundly change the map of the Middle East.

That's why the Bush administration's hands-off attitude toward the conflict cannot persist. What's needed at this critical juncture is for the president to put his political capital to work and on the line to bring about conditions for renewed peace talks.

Mr. Bush was the first American president to call for the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel. He should put his words into action and capitalize on the political changes of the past year that started with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's decision to formalize his intention to unilaterally withdraw Israeli troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip.

That decision enhanced his standing with President Bush, who in April backed Israel's intention to maintain large West Bank settlements as part of a negotiated peace agreement. Mr. Bush's startling pronouncement led to criticism - much deserved - that the United States had abandoned its role as an honest broker. His very public support of the Israeli position reversed long-standing U.S. policy and eroded America's already-poor image among Arabs.

Yasser Arafat's death in November opened the way for new leadership (a Palestinian president is to be elected Jan. 9) and a reinvigoration of the peace process. Israel, recognizing the opportunity at hand, has made gestures toward Mahmoud Abbas, a political moderate, former peace negotiator and top presidential contender. Palestinians held municipal elections for the first time in 30 years. Egypt and Israel approved a new trade agreement, a sign of rapprochement between two wary neighbors whose cooperation is essential to achieving peace.

But the true measure of change will be the efforts to assist a new Palestinian president in improving the status of his people. That's the best way to undermine militants whose four-year battle with Israel has left more than 1,000 Israelis and 3,000 Palestinians dead. If the Bush administration refuses to move the process ahead, strife, violence and despair will dominate the coming year instead of hope, progress and peace.

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