With 18 months left in office, President Bush may try to pull a rabbit out of the thread-bare Middle East hat. No, probably not in Iraq. Rather, in trying to forge a Palestine – if, that is, he can be even-handed about it.
On Monday, he called for an international conference this fall to negotiate the creation of a Palestinian state that can exist peacefully with Israel. Such a historic step would do as much to prevent another terrorist strike on US soil as anything else Mr. Bush has done overseas in the nearly six years since the Sept. 11 attacks. His goal of democratizing the Middle East is a ways off, to say the least, with an unstable Iraq. And Al Qaeda has found a new home in Pakistan.
Stateless Palestinians have long been a casus belli among Arab terrorists, although removing the injustice done to them by Israel's creation in 1948 has also long been in the interests of the US and Israel, especially since the 1967 war that led Israel to take new territory.
Toward the end of his presidency, President Clinton tried to make a final push to forge a compromise between Israel and the Palestinians. A lame-duck US president has enough independence from domestic political pressures to attempt such head-knocking diplomacy. But Mr. Clinton failed, and within a year, the 9/11 attacks happened, setting the stage for Bush to virtually ignore the Palestinian issue as he formed a tight bond with a hardline Israeli government.
His secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, however, has nudged Bush to help create a Palestine, one based on moderate Palestinians. With Yasser Arafat's passing in 2004 and then the recent Palestinian civil war that left the militant Hamas isolated in the Gaza Strip, the opportunity arose to work solely with Fatah, the other main Palestinian group, and with President Mahmoud Abbas, Fatah's leader. Moderate Arab states, too, are moving closer to Israel, worried about Iran's drive to be a regional nuclear power and the war in Iraq, while also tiring of the Palestinians' violent squabbles.
What's missing the most in this new clarity of events is Bush's plan to push Israel into making major concessions. Up to now, Bush and Israel have largely been like lips to teeth in chewing on the Palestinian question. Any big concessions, especially on Jerusalem's future and the dismantling of Jewish settlements on the West Bank, need to be on the table.
Israel, to its credit, has seized on recent events to transfer money to the Abbas regime and start the release of Palestinian prisoners. The harder decisions have yet to be made, and, with the US foreign military-financing budget giving nearly $2.4 billion for Israel in 2007, Bush has some leverage.
Israel can't count on Mr. Abbas's political weakness to avoid taking such steps. Rather, as long as both Israel and Bush are isolating the elected Hamas leaders, they must go even further in winning over many Palestinians everywhere with concessions. Otherwise, Hamas may only gain more political strength.
Bush must also ensure that Abbas fully disarms terrorist groups in the West Bank and works to end official Israel-bashing propaganda that incites terrorism.
Bush's father sponsored the 1991 Madrid conference that led to the 1993 Oslo peace accords. Those failed, but left lessons on what the US can do right this time.