Preemptive Palestine

American presidents, by tradition, haven't told Israel or the Palestinians how to draw the map between them. Rejection would only weaken US clout in the region.

But this week, President Bush is expected to lay out a vision for an interim Palestinian state, and the necessary steps for getting there.

Call it Oslo II, but such a bold plan would have the full power and prestige of the United States behind it.

Israel's right-wing leaders oppose it, as expected, because even a partial state seems to reward Palestinian attacks on Israeli civilians. But a Bush vision could also close off Israel's plans to put more and more Jewish settlers on the West Bank.

The US must break with Israel on this point now because of its own war on terrorism. It needs to lift Palestinian gloom about not having a homeland and show the people of the Middle East there's an endgame to this conflict. Without that, Iraq would always have an excuse to ready weapons of mass destruction and hand them over to anti-US terrorists.

Mr. Bush will be under political pressure to water down his plan. Israel's supporters in the US know he needs to court pro-Israel voters. But the president should put the US war effort before party or his reelection.

Not all Israeli leaders reject moving quickly to a Palestinian state. Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer recently told Israel's Army Radio: "Whoever thinks that the problem can be solved with military means – it can't be. Whoever ignores the need for the existence of a Palestinian state, or for the existence of two entities, simply doesn't know what he's talking about.... There's no way around it: Two nations are going to have to live side by side. It would be well if they would do it very quickly, to find the basis for coexistence."

Speed is essential, but Bush could be pressured into making too many demands on Palestinians for the US to accept an interim state. At the least, though, much depends on whether the Palestinians themselves push for new leadership, and give Yasser Arafat a titular role. And the powers of a Palestinian state need to be limited so it doesn't pose a threat to Israel.

Bush's speech this week will be a critical step in the US war on terrorism. A bold plan for the Palestinians can only soothe Middle East tensions.

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