April 13, 2003

Aftermath: Time for Boldness in the Mideast

If Washington can so swiftly slice through the defenses of Baghdad and crush a tyranny built up over three decades, might it not also be able to break down the depressingly familiar roadblocks to peace between Israel and the Palestinians? We believe the Bush administration has a historic opportunity to transform the psychology of the stalled Mideast peace process. If President Bush can muster the same single-minded determination he has shown over Iraq, he just might succeed.

His starting point should be the road map toward peace painstakingly drawn up with Europe, Russia and the United Nations late last year and scheduled for publication as soon as the new Palestinian prime minister's cabinet is sworn in. The road map envisions a series of parallel steps by Palestinians and Israelis, leading first to a provisional Palestinian state, and then to a final peace settlement by 2005.

But this is a moment for greater boldness than seemed appropriate when the road map was first drawn up. Long timetables, incremental steps and vague definitions have an unhappy history in the Mideast, most recently demonstrated in the violent unraveling of the Oslo peace agreements. Mr. Bush should offer a more sweeping vision, with inducements for both sides to begin discussing it later this spring. It should be based on an early and straightforward exchange of nearly all the land Israel has occupied in the West Bank and Gaza Strip since 1967 for a guaranteed and comprehensive peace. Anything less would make it difficult to create an economically and politically viable Palestinian state. Israel can be expected to agree to such terms only in return for full security and recognition from all its neighbors.

Achieving such a settlement will be hard. Mr. Bush will have to press Israel's prime minister, Ariel Sharon, to part with most of the West Bank and Gaza Strip Jewish settlements he has made a career of building and defending. He will have to insist that Yasir Arafat yield most of his remaining powers to his new prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen. He will also have to convince Syria and Iran to end support for anti-Israel terrorism. Events in Iraq may strengthen Mr. Bush's arguments with Syria, Iran and Mr. Arafat. Moving Mr. Sharon may require expending some of the enormous political capital Mr. Bush has amassed through defeating Saddam Hussein.

It is not Israel's fault alone that it has occupied the West Bank and Gaza Strip for close to 36 years. It has lacked reliable partners for peace. Mr. Bush must now make an effort to produce such partners and change Israeli attitudes as well. The prize for doing so could be the kind of transformation of the Middle East that Mr. Bush's advisers dream about and that America's long-term security requires.

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company