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Bush Should Press Sharon

May 14, 2003

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell is trying to put a good face on his trip to the Middle East, which was intended to strengthen support for a "road map" to peace drawn up by the U.S., the United Nations, the European Union and Russia. But Powell couldn't disguise the roadblock he hit in Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's refusal to endorse the latest plan to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Unless President Bush tells Sharon that he must cooperate, particularly by agreeing that settlements must be dismantled, Powell will be crippled.

This trip is in some ways a replay of Powell's unsatisfying Mideast trip in April 2002. Then, Powell sought to revive the peace process, but Israel refused to withdraw troops from West Bank cities it had invaded several weeks earlier, stating that troops were needed to prevent further Palestinian suicide bombings. Bush said nothing.

Two months later, seeming to reengage, Bush announced that he backed the creation of a Palestinian state and insisted that Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat cede power. The administration then remained aloof from the conflict until the eve of the Iraq war. Bush, under pressure from British Prime Minister Tony Blair, his beleaguered ally, spoke again of an eventual Palestinian state.

With the quick victory in Iraq, the administration seemed poised to deliver on its promise to the Arab world to push for a breakthrough between Israelis and Palestinians. The road map backed by Bush would begin by ending violence on both sides, halt settlement activity and aim toward a Palestinian state in 2005. The Palestinians have taken real steps to reform. New Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas represents a break from Arafat and his links to terror, but his authority needs bolstering with some successes. Sharon, however, has made only the minimum possible concessions, freeing 180 Palestinian detainees and letting in 25,000 workers, and scheduling a meeting with Abbas on Friday. He also sealed off the Gaza Strip and, most important, spurned the opportunity to publicly accept the road map.

In meeting with Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher, Powell tried to claim that it didn't matter whether Sharon formally accepted the road map as long as he carried out its provisions. But it does matter, as Maher pointedly noted in their joint news conference.

If Sharon is unwilling to state explicitly that he backs the plan, he will be far less constrained to execute its provisions. Sharon is testing not the Palestinians but Bush's commitment to the peace process. If he doesn't receive a phone call from Bush saying that his scheduled visit to the White House is off unless he embraces the road map, Sharon will feel free to hunker down and avoid painful negotiations.

Powell is doing himself no favors by trying to turn the crumbs that Sharon is offering the Palestinians into a banquet. Unless he persuades Bush to intervene, Powell risks becoming irrelevant while the region descends into even more bloodshed.

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