Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called the United States the “indispensable nation.” That is especially true in the Middle East, where President Bush is applying needed pressure on the prime ministers of the Palestinian Authority and Israel to advance the peace process. Bush told Mahmoud Abbas on Friday that the Palestinians must dismantle extremist groups that send young people with bombs around their waists into buses and restaurants to kill Israelis. On Tuesday, the president told Ariel Sharon that Israel must consider the consequences of its actions and help Palestinians live normal lives.
Bush’s evenhanded encouragement of the two leaders follows a month of relative calm in Israel and the occupied territories, after militant Palestinian groups declared temporary cease-fires in the uprising they launched nearly three years ago. Bush initially had declined a role in mediating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in sharp contrast to President Clinton’s deep involvement. But a year ago, Bush announced support for a Palestinian state and this year pledged active involvement in the region. His welcome engagement in the peace process included June summits in Egypt and Jordan.
Washington’s pressure has paid off with the cease-fire and with the Israeli release of some Palestinian prisoners and removal of some checkpoints that stopped Palestinians from getting to their jobs. The checkpoints only further impoverished the occupied territories and fueled anger at Israel. Bush also heeded Abbas’ complaint against an Israeli fence under construction in the territories and raised the issue with Sharon. Israelis say the fence stops terrorists, but Palestinians complain it is taking their land and their livelihoods.
Sharon said he would continue building the fence, but he did promise to minimize its effect on Palestinians. In some areas, the fence stops residents from getting to their own farmlands; that is yet another blow to the Palestinian economy. One way to make it easier for Palestinians to tend their fields, reopen stores and restart factories would be to remove Israeli troops and their checkpoints and curfews from more occupied towns. Israel will find it easier to return the soldiers to their barracks if the Palestinian Authority increases its efforts to rebuild its security forces and protect Israel from terror attacks. Both sides should keep talking about security cooperation.
U.S. involvement in the peace process is essential to keep it going, but Arab nations also should play a part, as Egypt did in promoting the cease-fire. Bush struck the right notes Tuesday in warning that much more hard work was needed by Israel and the Palestinians.
To keep the violence at bay and advance the process, the Palestinians need to be able to get their children back to school and themselves back to work. Abbas must get help from Israel, the U.S. and Arab neighbors, as well his own people, to achieve this rare normality.