It's easy to lapse into pessimism when dealing with the Middle East. So many peace initiatives have gone awry that nobody wants to get burned building great expectations each time the leaders in this troubled region start making promises.
So let's admit that the recent summit in Jordan between President Bush (search), Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas (search) represents only a small step in the right direction. But let's also realize that it's an important first step in what remains a long, grueling, uphill journey to peace.
The summit generated soothing rhetoric. Abbas called for the end of terrorism against Israelis and the use of "peaceful means" to end the "occupation and suffering" in the region. Sharon said, "It is in Israel's interest not to govern the Palestinians, but for the Palestinians to govern themselves in their own state." Sharon also freed 100 Palestinian prisoners, eased controls on Palestinian areas and pledged to remove settlement "outposts" — whose construction had not been approved by the Israeli government.
Abbas and Sharon appear to have established a degree of trust that has been lacking since Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat rejected a deal at the July 2000 Camp David (search) summit and returned to terrorism against Israelis. But Abbas must show he'll back up his words with deeds if he's to become a credible partner in peace.
Unfortunately, it's not clear Abbas can deliver. He lacks a secure political power base and could be dismissed at any time by Arafat, who still heads the Palestinian Authority. According to U.S. officials, Abbas commands the support of only about 400 of the more than 30,000 members of the Palestinian security services. And radical Palestinian factions such as Hamas and Palestine Islamic Jihad reject peace with Israel and have vowed to continue their terrorist attacks.
Abbas has pressed those groups to stop attacking Israelis, but his pleadings mean little absent a robust policy to disarm Palestinian terrorist groups. Abbas doesn't have the will or capability to crack down on such groups and needs the support of Arab states and the West to isolate and weaken them.
The June 3 Sharm al Sheikh summit that brought Bush and Abbas together with the leaders of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Jordan gave some hope on this score. The Arab leaders condemned the "culture of extremism" and pledged to block support for terrorist groups.
This is a good start, but much more needs to be done. For example, all Western and Arab aid should be funneled to the Palestinian Authority's Ministry of Finance, not to Yasser Arafat's office or to nongovernmental and charitable groups that could be terrorist fronts. Also, Washington should press Arab leaders to downgrade their relations with Arafat, who was pointedly excluded from both summits, and upgrade relations with Abbas, whose standing already has been bolstered by the two summits.
If Arafat is not marginalized and terrorism ended, the road map will lead only to gridlock. No Israeli government will take further risks for peace unless the Palestinians honor their commitments. And Arafat, who has made a career out of terrorism, has demonstrated again and again that he cannot be trusted.
The road map is more of a wish list of goals than a blueprint for peace. Although the Israelis and Palestinians have accepted it conditionally, much arduous diplomatic spadework remains. President Bush has promised to "ride herd" on the process. But he shouldn't intervene unless necessary.
Israel and the Palestinians must work things out themselves. Excessive American intervention leads both sides to negotiate with Washington rather than each other, as the Clinton administration discovered. Most of the biggest breakthroughs in the Arab-Israeli peace negotiations have come through bilateral diplomatic efforts such as Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's 1977 visit to Jerusalem and the secret Israeli-Palestinian talks at Oslo in 1993.
Meanwhile, Bush must "ride herd" on the State Department and the three other members of "the quartet" who proposed the roadmap - Russia, the European Union and the United Nations. The Bush administration should stick to principles laid out in the president's June 24, 2002, speech, which stressed the importance of developing a Palestinian leadership untainted by terrorism. (See: "President Bush's Middle East Speech: A Breath of Fresh Air", by James Phillips)
President Bush has led America to victory over terrorist regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq. He shouldn't allow pressure to reach a settlement result in the creation of a Palestinian state that would become a staging area for continued terrorism. Palestinians must take active, systematic steps to crush terrorism before they attain statehood. Their pledges alone are not enough.
James Phillips is a research fellow specializing in the Middle East at The Heritage Foundation.
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