Keeping traction on the road to Middle East peace

Can 10 unarmed US government employees deployed to Israel and Palestine contribute more to the welfare of the Middle East than the 146,000 US troops occupying Iraq? It's possible they will, because these 10 make up the team President Bush is sending to monitor the performance of Israel and the Palestinian Authority under the current road map for peace.

I wholeheartedly congratulate Mr. Bush for the strength of his current engagement with the oh-so-necessary task of Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking. During the past 32 months, 377 Palestinian children, 92 Israeli children, and about 2,100 adults from both communities lost their lives to intergroup violence. Another ominous statistic: During this period, Israel's security forces successfully targeted more than 100 Palestinian men for executions that were carried out quite outside any process of law.

It is time - way past time - for this intercommunal bloodletting and this extreme degradation of social norms to be brought to an end. Bush has declared his determination to see the present negotiations succeed. And the 10 unarmed monitors? At the end of his June 4 summit meeting in Aqaba, Jordan, with the Israeli and Palestinian prime ministers, Bush said, "This mission will be charged with helping the parties move toward peace, monitoring their progress, and stating clearly who is fulfilling their responsibilities."

During the current phase of the road map, new Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas has a responsibility to "undertake visible efforts" to arrest and disrupt all those planning violent attacks on Israelis. For his part, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon must immediately dismantle all settlement outposts erected since March 2001, freeze all other settlement activity, and lift curfews and movement controls throughout the Palestinian areas. By design, these steps are to be undertaken in parallel, with none of the actions of either party being dependent on the other side's prior performance.

Taking steps like these poses huge risks - for both leaders. Each faces highly vocal opposition from hard-liners at home. Each leads a nation that has been traumatized by 32 months of active violence. Neither prime minister wants to go down in history as a leader who started a civil war. Each, therefore, hopes to nudge his people into the negotiating process much more by persuasion than by forcing an outright confrontation with domestic opponents.

Which is why firm and consistent outside sponsorship of the process continues to be crucial. Bush and his partners in the "quartet" that sponsored the road map need to state loud and clear that any actions that undermine it are unacceptable. That applies to the actions of Israelis, just as much as those of Palestinians.

Then, if Israelis and Palestinians see that the road map is indeed being implemented evenhandedly, they'll be much more inclined to give its proponents a chance.

There's much the US and its partners in the quartet can do to help Messrs. Abbas and Sharon stay on track. Abbas needs huge help rebuilding the many Palestinian governance structures - including security structures - that have been pulverized by the Israelis during the past two years. Israel will continue to need its customarily massive amounts of external aid. But all such help should be firmly conditioned on the recipients sticking to the path defined by the road map, rather than straying from it.

The road map's Israeli and Palestinian critics will doubtless continue to shout loud slogans against it. But Bush and his quartet partners need to remember that in spite of the vehemence of that opposition, the vast majority of Israelis and Palestinians still yearn for an end to the violence, and a return to normal life that is free of occupation, violence, and insecurity. In each community, more than 70 percent told pollsters from the University of Maryland last December that they would be satisfied with a two-state solution based on something close to the pre-1967 lines.

Giving voice to that "silent majority for peace" in both communities is the main task the quartet's leaders now have before them.

Yes, there are many tough issues that still need to be negotiated. Yes, the road map still has many flaws which may need to be corrected as the process gathers momentum. But at least now, a US president wielding unprecedented global and domestic power has engaged firmly on the side of leading this negotiation to a successful, two-state outcome. In both Israel and the Palestinian areas, there are prime ministers who have now started to take real risks for peace and whose quest for peace, therefore, deserves to be fully supported.

The 10 unarmed American "peace monitors" are an important part of this process. If they're given the right backing from Washington, they could end up contributing a lot more to the stability and welfare of the Middle East than all those thousands of GIs now pursuing an increasingly lengthy and unclear mission in Iraq.

Helena Cobban is the author of five books on international relations.

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