Will Mideast Road Map Cost Bush on Homefront?

In the wake of the Aqaba summit (search), Palestinian terrorist attacks and Israeli preventive actions have killed scores of people in the Middle East.

It has also prompted pundits and foreign policy experts to ponder whether collateral damage will be inflicted on the international standing of George W. Bush.

After all, these pontificators reason, the president staked his political capital in the hope of advancing a "vision of peace" he laid out on June 24, 2002. He did so by demanding that Arabs and Jews not only embrace an internationally developed "road map," but implement it.

According to this conventional wisdom, if the progress Mr. Bush hoped to achieve on the road map fails to materialize, he will lose credibility and influence on the world stage.

A new poll commissioned by the Center for Security Policy (searchsuggests that Mr. Bush may actually have a bigger problem, however, if progress is made on the "road map." A survey of 700 Americans by the Luntz Research Companies (searchindicates that a majority of voters support principles and preconditions he embraced in his visionary speech last June, but that are not features of the current initiative.

For example, the American people share the skepticism Mr. Bush expressed a year ago about the true intentions of the Palestinian (search)leadership. For example, roughly half of those polled believe that the Palestinian leadership still wants to destroy Israel (search), compared to only 28 percent that believe it wishes to make peace.

For this reason, Mr. Bush last June insisted that there needed to be a new Palestinian leadership "untainted by terror." According to the Luntz survey, though, most Americans -- fully 61 percent -- do not agree with the president that the recently appointed Palestinian "Prime Minister," Mahmoud Abbas (search), satisfies this criterion, insofar as he was Yasser Arafat's (searchdeputy for most of 40 years. Only 21 percent think Abbas qualifies as a "new leader."

In addition, Americans overwhelmingly agree with the central caveat President Bush established in his Rose Garden address last year: Before the U.S. would support the establishment of a Palestinian state, "its leaders [must] engage in a sustained fight against terrorists and dismantle their infrastructure." By a margin of 73 percent to 18 percent, they support this as-yet-unfulfilled precondition.

Like President Bush last year, 63 percent of Americans believe Israel should not give up land if the terrorism against it continues; 20 percent disagree.

And as President Bush insisted a year ago, 73 percent believe it is "fair" for Israel to insist that Palestinian incitement against it must stop before there can be any hope for a true peace. Only 16 percent think such insistence to be "unfair."

Unfortunately, the road map would call for the creation of a Palestinian state whether terrorism (search)and official incitement against Israel continues or not. By the end of this year, provisional boundaries are supposed to be established. According to its timetable, a full-fledged "Palestine" would be internationally recognized in 2005, even if the preconditions most Americans sensibly support remain unsatisfied.

A particularly noteworthy finding of the Luntz poll was that nearly 80 percent of our countrymen and women agree that force "can and should" be used against terrorists and their safe havens involved in operations intended to kill Americans. Only 15 percent disagree.

Most Americans believe that Israel is entitled to employ similar means to protect its people. In fact, by a margin of 69 percent to 18 percent, Americans believe Israel has the right to use preemptive force against terrorists and their safe havens.

The good news is that the president's most recent statements about the need to smash Hamas (search), Hezbollah (search)and other terrorist organizations (searchoperating against Israel reaffirms his support for this fundamental principle. The bad news is that Mr. Bush's adherence to the other principles detailed in his June 24 speech and favored by the American public has become less clear since he embraced the road map. This needs to be rectified.

The American people rightly want genuinely new Palestinian leadership -- not a flim-flam whereby Arafat's long-time right-hand man pretends to be an independent, peaceable anti-Arafat. They want a real end to terror and its infrastructure -- not what will be, at best, a temporary cease-fire. They want a true cessation of anti-Israel incitement -- not its unbroken continuation. These sentiments are even more profoundly shared by self-identified Christian conservatives (search), a core part of President Bush's political base.

If that base -- to say nothing of millions of other Americans of a similar mind -- winds up being alienated from Mr. Bush over his pursuit of policies they believe are unlikely to produce peace, his reelection prospects could be affected. This is especially true if the next presidential contest turns out to be another close one. Before the road map has such an undesirable effect, he would be well advised to undertake a course correction, one that is in both the nation's interest in a real and durable Mideast peace and in his own.

Frank J. Gaffney Jr. held senior positions in the Reagan Defense Department. He is currently president of the Center for Security Policy.