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That Other Mideast Crisis

March 15, 2003

President Bush's return to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict Friday was sketchy and late, but it does give the United States and its erstwhile allies something on which they can agree. His promise to publish a "road map" to the creation of a Palestinian state once the prospective Palestinian prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, is confirmed provides a boost to Abbas -- and to British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who has made a point of calling for more attention to the issue.

After weeks of bitter quarreling over Iraq, Bush's statement amounted to an olive branch to France, Germany and other members of the European Union, and to Russia and Arab states. The EU, Russia, the United Nations and the United States have been cooperating to draw up the timetable of reciprocal steps to be taken by Israel and the Palestinians. The other members of the group had criticized the United States for focusing on Iraq while the Mideast conflict expanded.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat established the post of prime minister reluctantly and under heavy pressure from Israel and the United States, which have refused to deal with him and demanded new leadership.

Arafat chose Abbas, better known as Abu Maazen, who has declined to say yes until he knows whether he'll have real authority. Abu Maazen is a favorite of Israeli officials and Washington because he is seen as willing to give and take in negotiations. He can be effective only if he acts independently on matters such as cleaning up Palestinian Authority financial corruption and showing more willingness than Arafat to build a security apparatus that tries to stop terrorists from attacking Israelis.

Bush made a major statement on the conflict last June and then was largely silent until a Feb. 26 speech pushing the Israeli government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to get back to work on an agreement on the terms of a Palestinian state and to stop "settlement activity in the occupied territories."

During 30 months of Palestinian violence and Israeli military reoccupation of Palestinian lands, hopes for a map to peace have grown dim. The signal of U.S. reinvolvement, the only force likely to bring the sides back to negotiations, is worth notice.

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