Bush's debt to Blair pushes US in right direction

Flush with success in Iraq, and deep in postwar turbulence there, the Bush administration may not yet be giving much attention to the next pressing international challenge. But it must. That challenge is not Iran. It is not Syria. Nor even North Korea. It is the long-festering divide between Israelis and Palestinians.

As Iraqis are pictured on television dancing jubilantly in the streets, waving placards that say "Thank You USA," and "God Bless President Bush," the rest of the Muslim world - insofar as one can judge from the Arab press and Arab intellectuals - is torn. There was never much enthusiasm in other Muslim lands for Saddam Hussein. The joyous reaction in Iraq to his fall has clearly had an impact on Muslim TV viewers elsewhere. But there still lingers skepticism in the Muslim world about US motives and intentions.

What would do the most to diminish that skepticism and explain the honorable intent of American motives? A successful US initiative to end the worst violence in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and cap it with a solution providing justice and security for each side.

With peace in the region, and the example of burgeoning democracy in Iraq, the outlook for the Islamic Arab world could begin to be transformed from backwardness and despair to progress and hope.

For Mr. Bush, the task will not be easy. Washington insiders say he must make a cruel choice between British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

As one Washingtonian close to power puts it: "If anyone in this world is owed a bigger favor from the president than Tony Blair, I can't think of him." The reference, of course, is to Mr. Blair's sturdy support of Bush policy in Iraq, despite blistering criticism of the British prime minister from his own people. Blair is pressing Bush hard to come up with a deal ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Clearly, Bush owes Blair.

But Bush also has strong political loyalties to Mr. Sharon, and an emotional attachment to democratic Israel, underscored by the support of the Jewish community in the US. Sharon is balking at an early settlement at a time when Israel remains beset by Palestinian terrorism. Polls in Israel suggest that 60 percent of the electorate favor a deal to make peace. But Sharon, who is nobody's liberal, must contend with the 40 percent of the voters even more hard-line than he is.

Will Bush, under pressure from Blair, his wartime ally, get tough with Sharon in order to bring him to the peace table?

A few things have to happen before Bush can reasonably do that, and Sharon can take the risk. The Palestinians will have to get their political house in order. That means effectively sidelining Yasser Arafat, whom, it is fair to say, both Bush and Sharon now detest. Neither man can do business with him. The hope lies in the recent establishment and appointment of a moderate Palestinian prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, who, with his real executive powers, could leaven Mr. Arafat's obduracy with reason and political pragmatism.

Mr. Abbas will have no easy task of it. Arafat will remain chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), with sway over relations with Israel, national security, and foreign policy. But Abbas will head the PLO negotiating team, and has spoken out against terrorism on grounds it is contrary to Palestinian interests. The next few days will determine the political character of his cabinet, and its willingness and ability to crack down on Palestinian militants. Thereafter he must tread a delicate path that would ensure credibility with Americans and Israelis on the one hand, without alienating Arafat, the icon of Palestinian nationalism, on the other.

If he can manage this balancing act successfully, the way would be open for Bush to pursue his "road map" to the creation of a Palestinian state with provisional borders and attributes of sovereignty, perhaps by the end of this year. Sharon is balking at the degree of independence such a state would have, and also taking a tough stand on an end to violence and a return to normalcy of Palestinian life, before such a state could come into being.

If Bush is to meet Blair's urgings, he must strong-arm Sharon into line. That has obvious political risks for both Bush and Sharon. But the upside for the US would be heightened credibility throughout the Arab world.

John Hughes, editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret News, is a former editor of the Monitor.

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