The spotlight is on Iraq and the war, an urgent concern. Upstage, however, a subplot is playing out - for even greater stakes. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict affects the outcome in Iraq and stability in the Middle East, and resolving it is more important than ever.
Washington's wish to move from victory in Iraq to a democratic Middle East is even more a pipe dream without real Israeli-Palestinian peace. Continued violence and terrorist atrocities on both sides provoke Arab outrage in the region and make a foundation of normality impossible to build.
There is an agreed plan to achieve peace based on a Bush administration vision of two independent states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side. The idea has been laid out by "the quartet": the US, Russia, the European Union, and the UN. Their "road map" is not a proposal to be negotiated, but a program of reciprocal steps by both sides, under close supervision, leading to an independent Palestine by 2005 and an Israel accepted by all its Arab neighbors.
The road map ignores Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's contention that Israel can make no concessions until Palestinian violence ends. Both sides must take parallel measures. The Palestinians must go first in one respect - sidelining Yasser Arafat and forming a constitutional government determined to end violence against Israelis anywhere. Israel must progressively withdraw from Palestinian areas occupied after Sept. 28, 2000. Jewish settlements erected since March 2001 must be dismantled immediately.
The Palestinians must now draft a constitution and, having approved a prime minister, let him form a government. When that is done, the US says it will allow publication of the road map as an open commitment to the entire process.
But the concept is bold and will need strong, consistent US support as the parties negotiate such final status problems as boundaries, settlements, refugees, and Jerusalem. The goal of a viable Palestinian state is surely the opposite of what Mr. Sharon has in mind. His solution of the Palestine issue rests on brute force, cutting the occupied territories into a disjointed archipelago, following the model of South African apartheid, with an incredible fence snaking around and through it. In the name of security, he has smashed Palestinian society, reducing it to sub-Saharan poverty and malnutrition.
Mr. Bush finds himself in a dilemma of his own making. In reaffirming his ties to the quartet he helps Prime Minister Tony Blair and conciliates the EU. He also takes on another burden at a time when the Iraq campaign, the war against terror, the dicey transformation of Afghanistan, the menace of North Korea, and the floundering domestic economy are more than enough. But, if Bush drops the road map before reaching the destination, he'll leave the Middle East even bleaker and angrier than it was before.
• Richard C. Hottelet was a correspondent for CBS.