Peace Like Clockwork

The clock's again ticking for Middle East peace. And if President Bush keeps winding it up, the Palestinians and Israel might find a way to live with each other in about two years.

Mr. Bush's resolve to start a countdown to a Palestinian state was made clear on Sunday, when Israel's Cabinet reluctantly accepted a US-driven "road map" toward peace after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon failed last week to have Bush alter its terms.

Now, for the first time, Israel officially accepts the Palestinians' hope for an independent state, although with its own side dish of conditions and with a snippy caveat that it's only doing this for the Americans.

Israel's historic move comes just a few weeks after the US and Europe engineered the sidelining of Yasser Arafat with the election of the more peace-minded Mahmoud Abbas as Palestinian prime minister.

Even if the road map now fails - as the Oslo accords of 10 years ago did after a string of Palestinian suicide bombings began in 2000 - Bush will have at least further implanted the idea of inevitable peace among Palestinians and Israelis, reinforcing a popular against-all-odds hope that can only help drive diplomacy.

The peace clock began ticking largely because Bush needs progress toward creating a Palestinian state as part of the US campaign against terror. He must keep key allies like Tony Blair on board and remove yet another incentive for Al Qaeda's recruitment of Arab fanatics.

Bush's resolve will also be clear if he travels to the region in June, as planned, and acts as a direct mediator. Such high-stakes diplomacy, with its risk of an egg-on-the-president's-face failure, would show that Bush ranks a peace deal ahead of the Republican Party's campaign to woo Israel's strongest supporters in the US.

Timing will be everything in the early phases of the road map in order to establish trust. Bush must push Israel to dismantle illegal settlements, while also pushing Palestinian leaders to confiscate illegal weapons and suppress suicide bombers.

The litter of past Middle East peace plans should not deter Bush from trying again. Violence need not be the clock that ticks for both sides.

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