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Back on the map

September 20, 2006

WHEN A REPORTER DOESN'T get to the most newsworthy information until the middle of his story, an editor will complain that he's "burying the lead." That's what President Bush may have done Tuesday in his address to the United Nations General Assembly -- but nobody should complain. The buried lead in Bush's U.N. remarks about the democratization of the Middle East was his announcement of a potentially significant U.S. initiative for peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

Bush addressed what he called "peace in the Holy Land" only after taking the delegates through a tour of developments in the region -- including in Afghanistan and Iraq -- and throwing U.S. support behind a peacekeeping force in Sudan. But when Bush did get to the Israeli-Palestinian issue, what he said was consistent with -- and different from -- his earlier remarks about the spread of democracy in the region.

Surprisingly, Bush linked elections in the Palestinian territories to the expansion of the franchise elsewhere in the Arab world. Referring to Hamas, the rejectionist Islamic party with which Israel rightly refuses to negotiate, Bush said: "The leaders of Hamas campaigned on a platform of ending corruption and improving the lives of the Palestinian people, and they prevailed. The world is waiting to see whether the Hamas government will follow through on its promises or pursue an extremist agenda."

The implication is that Palestinians who voted for Hamas did so despite, not because of, the movement's antipathy toward Israel. The truth, as Bush surely knows, is more complicated. Bush also spoke with a new urgency about the need for negotiations to achieve a two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians. He reaffirmed U.S. support for the "road map" for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations agreed on in 2002 by the U.S., the U.N., Russia and the European Union. And he said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would lead a renewed diplomatic effort in the region.

Again, while this might sound like diplomatic boilerplate, it amounts to a subtle change in direction. In May, Bush seemed receptive to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's proposals for unilateral Israeli withdrawal from parts of the West Bank, a plan predicated on the idea that the road map had become irrelevant. Now the president has unfolded the map again and invited Palestinians to take advantage of it. Hamas should "serve the interests of the Palestinian people," Bush said. "Abandon terror, recognize Israel's right to exist, honor agreements and work for peace." That may sound like a stern injunction, but it also offers Hamas a route to respectability.

Buried as they were in his speech, Bush's comments about the Arab-Israeli conflict were notable because they fit awkwardly into his main theme of democracy as the solution to tensions in the region. Democracy is important, but so are security for Israel and independence for the Palestinians.

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