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Don't Let the Bombers Win

May 20, 2003

Israelis could be forgiven for thinking the peace process hopeless. Extremists in the Palestinian territories want to destroy Israel, not make peace. Even tentative steps like Saturday night's meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the new prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, stirred the radicals to renewed fury. Five suicide bombings in three days bracketed the meeting and killed at least a dozen Israelis.

Despite all this, Abbas and his supporters, along with the Israelis and President Bush himself, can take steps to allow the peace process to resume. Otherwise the enemies of mutual peace have won.

Because of the attacks, Sharon postponed his trip to Washington to meet Bush, but the sooner Sharon and Bush confer, the better. Sharon has objections to the "road map" to peace drawn up by the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations. Palestinians believe that Sharon will find excuses not to work toward establishment of a Palestinian state and that Washington will not try to overcome his reluctance. Unless Bush works hard with Sharon, that pessimism may be well founded.

Bush has already taken a step down this hard path. While condemning the bombings, Bush said Monday that the road map "still stands" and he will not be pushed from it. The president also urged Arab nations to cut off funding to militant groups. Nations like Syria and Iran protect and assist terrorist organizations including Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which have launched numerous suicide attacks and are bent on destroying Israel, with little regard for what the Palestinian Authority says.

Palestinian extremists opposed the installation of Abbas as prime minister because he had denounced suicide bombings and was favored by the U.S. and Israel. It is uncertain how much power Abbas can muster against terrorist assaults. For one thing, Israeli attacks in response to renewed Palestinian violence since September 2000 have crippled the Palestinian Authority's security apparatus and wrecked its jails.

The authority's leader, Yasser Arafat, has lost some of his power with the rise of Abbas, and Israel and the United States have cut off contact with him. If he really wants peace and a Palestinian state, he will back Abbas and the road map's call for reciprocal steps by the Palestinians and Israelis.

Pictures of buses blown apart in Jerusalem and slain Israeli settlers in the West Bank city of Hebron cannot be allowed to determine whether peace prevails. The Palestinian Authority and the Israeli government should continue negotiations even as they attempt to quell the renewed violence.

If Abbas can show Palestinians the start of Israeli concessions, especially concerning withdrawal from Palestinian territory, he can appeal for support against the extremists. If Sharon can show Israelis a reduction in Palestinian violence and an Abbas campaign against terror, he can appeal for support for a dismantling of settlements and for a Palestinian state existing in peace next to Israel.

Like the prospect of any progress in the Middle East, it's a long shot. But the alternatives are much worse.

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