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Jewish World Review June 20, 2003 / 20 Sivan, 5763

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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Prey to the same trap

Bush needs to return to a vision of moral clarity on the Middle East | In the two weeks since the Aqaba summit, President Bush's road map has shown itself to be just another dead end leading to more violence and suffering for Israelis and Palestinians.

That much we already know.

What is still in question is whether this administration has the capacity to learn from its mistakes. Judging by the contradictory and confusing statements coming out of Washington in recent days, the answer is far from clear.

The basic equation of the road map was that a new Palestinian government — led by someone other than Yasser Arafat — would put an end to terrorism in exchange for Israeli troop pullbacks, and settlement evacuations and freezes, all for the sake of Palestinian statehood.

Though he had deep and justified misgivings about the plan, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon eventually agreed to it. Sharon showed that he was willing to defy his political base on settlements and stated repeatedly his readiness to accept a Palestinian state.

Mahmoud Abbas, the new Palestinian Authority premier, was more enthusiastic about the plan. But he has neither the will nor the ability to confront the terrorists of Hamas, Islamic Jihad or even Arafat's own Al Aksa Martyrs Brigade. Israel was asked to be patient while Abbas worked out a truce with the terrorists.

But repeated acts of violence, including bloody attacks on Israeli soldiers and yet another horrific bus bombing in Jerusalem last week, have forced Sharon's hand. Faced with Abbas' public statements that he will not confront Hamas, Israel struck back in a series of strikes aimed at taking out terrorist leaders.

The White House's reaction was anger at Israel.

Critics may debate the timing of Israel's attempts to kill Hamas leaders such as Abdel-Aziz Rantissi. But to behave as if it is illegitimate for the Jewish state to target a person involved in the slaughter of Jews and who is dedicated to Israel's eradication is absurd. It is bad enough for newspapers like The New York Times to write as if Rantissi has a right to a safe haven in Gaza. But for a president who has himself ordered the deaths of Al Qaeda terrorists, it is more than hypocrisy, it's scandalous.

Though the president modified his stance in subsequent days, the accusations directed at Israel left a powerful impression that will not soon be forgotten. Washington's stance — which implied moral equivalence between Hamas terrorists who aim to slaughter as many Jews as possible and Israeli soldiers who seek out terrorists — was echoed in virtually every major American daily's editorial column.

For a president who found his voice and purpose in enunciating a clear vision of war against all terrorists and their allies, the administration's double talk about the Palestinians is especially disturbing.

Like his predecessors who similarly dabbled in Arab-Israeli peace plans, the president has discovered that his good intentions are of value in the Middle East. Bush has allowed his frustration at the lack of progress in negotiations to skew his view of the two sides. His favorable view of Abbas, for example, who gained office at the president's behest and who has a talent for saying what Bush wants to hear while not actually doing anything, is entirely unjustified.

Even if the latest attempt at "progress" proves successful, what will have been acomplished? A truce that provides Hamas with a respite in order to re-arm its forces and which gives it the legitimacy of a place in the P.A. government will be no victory for Bush's principles or American interests. Bush fails to understand that the basic equation of Palestinian rejection of Israel is unchanged. Rather than twisting Sharon's arm further, he needs to look more closely at the funding of Hamas by his Saudi "allies." He also needs to take an honest look at his protégé Abbas and understand that this stand-in for Arafat will never rein in terror. Pressure on Israel will not bring peace or vindicate a war in Iraq that does not need the creation of a Palestinian state to justify it.

Having fallen prey to the same traps that betrayed his predecessors hopes, Bush must now return to the moral clarity of his June 24, 2002, speech on the Middle East. That might be a disappointment after the high hopes engendered by the victory in Iraq.

But until the Palestinians change, American peace efforts are bound to fail.

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JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

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