Bush: Will he walk the road-map talk?

The road map to peace between Israel and Palestine assumes they won't follow it by themselves. The obstacles of hate, mistrust, and violence on both sides are too high. The "quartet" of road-map authors - the European Union, the United Nations, Russia, and the United States - believe they may have to cajole, persuade, even push Israelis and Palestinians to follow the course. In reality, only the US has the power to intervene. The question is: Does it have the will?

President Bush has explicitly committed to an economically viable, independent Palestinian state living in peace with a secure Israel. It is an unusual and profound responsibility, demanding parallel constructive action by both sides. The Palestinians have started by drafting a democratic constitution and forming a government that is to sideline President Yasser Arafat and put an end to the terrorism inflicted on Israel's people. At the same time, Israel is to dismantle settlement outposts, stop all settlement activity, start withdrawing from occupied territory, and lift crushing restrictions on daily life.

No one expected a rocket-propelled takeoff down this road, and Secretary of State Colin Powell is putting his shoulder to the wheel.The new Palestinian government must prove that it can do what it must. On the other hand, Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon shows no signs of compliance. He disliked the road map from the start. Consequently, the US may have to pressure Sharon - something more easily said than done.

The US has supported Israel from the day it was born in 1948. But all presidents, from Truman on, have had difficulties with Israeli governments over various issues, including water rights, refugees, boundaries, and the use or misuse of American weapons. Most of all, the US has objected to Israel's settlement policy, seen by one administration after another as provocative and a hindrance to peace.

The closest thing ever to an open breach came in 1956, when Israel joined Britain and France in a military adventure to seize the Suez Canal after it had been nationalized by Egypt's president, Gamal Abdel Nasser. President Eisenhower furiously demanded they withdraw. Britain and France quickly did, but Israel's Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion refused; whereupon Eisenhower threatened to stop the flow of all aid to Israel, down to terminating the federal income-tax deduction for contributions, such as bonds, benefiting Israel. Two weeks later, as the Israeli government began to run out of money, Ben-Gurion capitulated.

For many years, Washington saw the problems of the Middle East largely in terms of the cold war with the Soviet Union. Arab hostility strengthened Israel's assertion that its hard-nosed policy and its claim to advanced American weaponry were essential for security.

Former President Carter wrote last year that President Nixon stopped Ariel Sharon and Israel's military advance into Egypt in the 1973 war by citing the agreement that Israel would employ American arms only in self-defense. Mr. Carter wrote, "I used the same demand to deter Israeli attacks on Lebanon in 1979. (A full invasion was launched by Ariel Sharon after I left office.)"

That invasion, in the summer of 1982, roused President Reagan to protest Israel's massive bombardment of West Beirut and its use of American cluster bombs. He asked that Israeli forces withdraw. Mr. Reagan expressed his outrage and horror as attacks continued, carried out not by Israeli forces but with their connivance. Nonetheless, there was never any pressure to make Defense Minister Ariel Sharon or Prime Minister Menachim Begin stop.

The issue of money, which Carter called "The other persuasive factor ... approximately $10 million daily in American aid to Israel," came up once more in the administration of President Bush the elder. The president stipulated that none of a $10 billion loan guarantee to house the influx of Russian Jews be spent in the occupied territories. The loan guarantee was held up for a while, but by June 1993 the affair was ancient history.

Now comes George Bush and his commitment to a two-state solution. No need to pressure the Palestinians, whose fate hangs upon it. But what about the Sharon government and its strong public approval? The president himself has called Sharon a man of peace, and a large majority in Congress seems to agree. Furthermore there is, as always in the US, an election in the offing, and supporters of Israel - Jews and Christians - vote their beliefs. Small wonder that some say Bush will not force a showdown before November 2004 - if ever.

Richard C. Hottelet is a former CBS correspondent.

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