Dust off the Mideast 'road map'

It sounds harsh to say it, for surely Israelis feel they need time to adjust to the gut-wrenching pullout from Gaza, which ended Monday. But green grass must not be allowed to grow over the dormant Israeli- Palestinian peace process in the name of an adjustment period. Rather, both sides must revive those talks, and to help them, President Bush must use US influence as never before.

This will be a challenge for Mr. Bush, who has so far been unwilling to invest the political capital necessary to go all out for an Israeli- Palestinian peace deal.

But without that persistent presidential push, it's hard to imagine Bush's 2003 "road map" to Palestinian statehood ever being pulled from the glove compartment, where it has been largely ignored by all sides, including Washington.

What's working against the president, however, is the great temptation for both Palestinians and Israelis to become preoccupied with their own political battles and affairs post-pullout.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said as much in his speech to the nation on the eve of the withdrawal:

"The disengagement will allow us to look inward," he said. "Our national agenda will change" to focus on the economy, social welfare, education, and security. He failed to mention, however, the elephant in the room - a challenge to his leadership of the Likud party by right-wing rival Benjamin Netanyahu, the former prime minister opposed to the withdrawal. This challenge could bring on elections - and more political turmoil - as early as next spring.

The Palestinians are now just as inward looking. Not only are they confronted with how to make the 25-mile-long, six-mile-wide Gaza Strip economically viable, but also their political battle looms in advance of parliamentary elections Jan. 25.

Just as Mr. Sharon is facing an assault from a rival, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is feeling the heat of the "old guard" within his ruling Fatah party. These beneficiaries of Arafat-era corruption seek to stymie the development of democracy within both Fatah and parliament. Ultimately, they hope to return concentrated power to the presidency and head off Hamas, the popular militant Islamic organization just now trying out politics and expected to do well in January.

Bush should do everything in his power to make sure that advocates of a peace deal win these respective face-offs.

To assist the Palestinians, Bush has promised US aid, but he must pressure Israel for further settlement withdrawals - as his secretary of State did last week. Israel must also show more leniency in talks with the Palestinians over border, port, and airport. Such steps would strengthen the weak Abbas, who needs leverage to crack down on militants - for which he must take more responsibility.

Concerning Israelis, Bush must appeal to Mr. Sharon's own justification for the pullout when he said that "the changing reality in the country, in the region and the world, required of me a reassessment."

Part of that new reality is the tentative foothold of democracy in the Middle East. A Palestinian-Israeli peace agreement would significantly further that trend, sap the attraction of Al Qaeda for many Muslims, and usher in the security needed to grow prosperity in this troubled region. President Bush has put his legacy on the line in Iraq. He should do the same for Israeli-Palestinian peace.

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