As Israel Votes, US Can Wait

What's a few more weeks in creating a Palestinian state and bringing peace to Israel?

President Bush has been under pressure from Europeans and Arabs to get a move on. They want him to unveil the next phase in the peace process, a three-step plan to Palestinian statehood in 2005 known as the "road map."

The president's opportunity presents itself today, when the "quartet" - top officials from Europe, Russia, the UN, and the US - meets in Washington. The group was expected to complete work on the plan, which has been in progress for more than six months, but the White House now is putting off its release.

Because a peace settlement would give Middle East terrorists one less reason to attack the US, the Bush administration should not delay further steps indefinitely. But it does seem politically prudent to wait until after Israel's Jan. 28 elections.

If unveiled today, the road map could very well crash and burn in the collision politics of an Israeli election. Then it would be back to the drawing board for yet another plan - a wait that would be far more costly than just these few weeks.

By sparing Mr. Sharon the campaign fight over the plan, Mr. Bush also is building leverage for his future partner's buy-in later on. And he's likely to increase that leverage by supporting an Israeli request of $4 billion in military aid and about $6 billion in US loan guarantees.

At the same time, it's not as if the quartet is in tune on the plan. The US still disagrees with the other members on how to supervise implementation of peace moves, on an end to Israeli settlement construction, and on an Israeli response to terrorism.

Last month, Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser to Bush Sr., argued that Bush Jr. should use the time while inspections are playing out in Iraq to seize the diplomatic high ground and focus on the road map. It would show the world that the US hasn't forgotten about this issue so germane to the global war on terrorism. Others say that acting now actually buttresses the president's case that a war in Iraq is not a war on Islam.

But it is hard to imagine that a concerted effort at this juncture would gain much traction. The attention of Washington, the nation, and the world, is properly focused on the inspectors' findings, on Iraq's response, and on the serious implications these pose for possible war.

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