Momentum for Mideast peace must not be lost

PUBLISHED : Friday, 06 June, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 06 June, 2003, 12:00am

The stalled movement towards peace between Israelis and Palestinians has gained new momentum, even if progress proves stumbling and stuttering. That qualification of the hopes raised by this week's Middle East summit is justified by a decade of failed previous initiatives and 32 months of the worst violence of the conflict.

The people of the region saw some optimistic signs on Wednesday, as Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his Palestinian counterpart, Mahmoud Abbas, shook hands and smiled under the gaze of United States President George W. Bush.

Mr Sharon and Mr Abbas are not driving the process, though - Mr Bush, heading European and Arab leaders, has vowed that creation of a Palestinian state through the peace plan known as the 'road map' is his priority.

The good-natured gathering in the Jordanian resort of Aqaba was a start, but it was just that - an emblem of good intentions. It could not even begin resolving contentious issues the road map has not touched: defining the borders of a Palestinian state; ending the dilemma of control over Jerusalem; or settling the status of the 700,000 Palestinians and their 3.3 million descendants who have been refugees since the creation of Israel in 1948.

Those matters will continue to be intractable while Israelis and Palestinians refuse to compromise. Yet there is a glimmer of optimism given the environment created by the Bush administration's changed priorities.

Previously, the Bush administration had made only half-hearted attempts at mediation between its ally Israel and the Palestinians, despite a mounting death toll caused by suicide bombers and reprisal attacks. Following the terror in New York and Washington on September 11, 2001, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was labelled a supporter of terrorism and sidelined. The war in Iraq refocused American attention on the Middle East.

Mr Bush's intervention brings a chance of stopping the cycle of violence and building the necessary thrust for a political solution. He has coaxed Mr Sharon and Mr Abbas, acting on Mr Arafat's behalf, to signal they want to invest in, and are prepared to take a risk for, peace.

But that is likely only if the US and European and Arab nations nurse the process step by step. Most crucial is American engagement. America has to push for peace harder than the Israeli and Palestinian leaders can, or will.

Mr Bush soon will turn his attention to domestic matters as his bid for re-election next year looms. Until then, a door has opened and as much as possible must be achieved so that the movement towards peace can continue to build momentum.

What happens in the next few months depends on Mr Bush's commitment. While he is willing and able, he must lay the groundwork for a lasting peace.