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President Bush has a chance to push for Middle East peace



Published: Mon, April 18, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



The situation in the Middle East is, as always, complicated and volatile, but there is more reason for cautious optimism today than there has been in more than a decade.

An uneasy truce between Israel and Palestinians is holding.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has renewed his commitment to pull 9,000 Israeli settlers out of the Gaza Strip and four small West Bank settlements. The evacuations would be the first time Israel has removed any of the more than 150 settlements it has built in territories captured in the 1967 Mideast war.

A confrontation between Jewish extremists and Muslims at the Temple Mount, which could have been disastrous, didn't materialize. Only a few dozen Jews showed up with the intention to provoke Muslims at a site that both religions consider sacred. Many of them were arrested; the others disbursed.

Still, if the possibility of peace is to be realized, the United States is going to have to play the role of an aggressive honest broker.

Meeting in Texas

A week ago, Sharon met with President Bush at the president's Crawford, Texas, ranch. Bush could have been more forceful in his demand that Sharon not undo whatever good he is doing by dismantling the Gaza settlements by expanding other, larger West Bank settlements.

The Associated Press reported that Sharon brushed off a warning from President Bush about further West Bank settlement growth, indicating Israel would continue to solidify its hold on areas it considers of strategic importance.

At a joint news conference, Sharon said Israel would not move forward on the road map until Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas did more to disarm militant groups and brought about "a full cessation of terror, hostilities and incitement."

Bush cited "a lack of confidence in the region." He added, "I can understand that. There's been a lot of death. A lot of innocent people have lost their lives. And there's just not a lot of confidence on either side."

Bush will have an opportunity to help establish some confidence between the sides.

Next month he will be meeting with Abbas, who has preferred a strategy of negotiations with militant groups, rather than confrontation.

Bush should demand that both Sharon and Abbas do a better job of following the internationally negotiated road map for peace plan, which calls for a settlement freeze by Israel and the cessation of terrorism by the Palestinians.

If the United States does not use its influence to keep both sides following the map, the prospect of peace could be lost.




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