Ever So Slowly, Progress in Mideast

At this moment, the revived Middle East peace process is already colliding with what are politely called “difficulties.” Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian prime minister, announced that he would delay meeting his Israeli counterpart, Ariel Sharon, supposedly due to “scheduling problems,” but probably because of dissension within his own shaky government. There will be far worse and bloodier “difficulties” to overcome before the parties reach the destination on the peacemaking “road map,” if they ever do.

The forces opposed to peace for both peoples always play the same murderous game when threatened by progress: terrorist violence followed by violent repression, and the same in reverse. The rejectionists among the Palestinians and Israelis remain each other’s most reliable allies, with suicide bombs and army bullets. And the cheering squads in America and other safe locations will encourage them to keep killing in the name of God and nation.

Yet remarkable developments in Jerusalem and Washington once again offer hope that true progress will resume. After more than two years of disengagement and fitful diplomacy, President Bush is finally shouldering the responsibility faced by his recent predecessors, notably his own father. He has at last dispensed with his own administration’s easy, unbecoming criticism of Bill Clinton’s valiant efforts in the region-and instead is facing up to the political risks that come with this contested territory. He appears to be working with the “quartet” partners-Russia, the European Union and the United Nations-whose views his government openly disdains on other issues.

So assuming that Mr. Bush follows through with serious and sustained effort, he will deserve considerable praise from all who criticized his earlier withdrawal from Middle East diplomacy. Already, he has defied the elements within his own party and his conservative base, notably on the religious right, who regard any demands on Israel as tantamount to blasphemy.

Even if the latest initiative stalls or fails, Washington’s renewed involvement has led to an extraordinary change. It has transformed Mr. Sharon from a rejectionist into a realist, provoking him to speak with the kind of candor that has long been anathema on the Israeli right. In remarks to his own hawkish cabinet and on Israel’s national radio network, the man who has come to symbolize the hard line said things never expected from him.

Mr. Sharon confessed that ruling over three million miserable, oppressed, hopeless Palestinian Arabs is gradually ruining his country. He admitted that the military solution imposed on the West Bank and Gaza is wrecking Israel’s economy, and may impose greater costs in years to come unless a diplomatic solution is achieved. He went so far as to suggest a degree of concern for the fate of the Palestinians, who must have been surprised to hear that he cares.

And Mr. Sharon went further still in two respects. He used the term “occupation” to describe Israel’s military and administrative control of Palestinian land-and he forced his reluctant cabinet to approve a plan that would, under certain conditions, result in the creation of a Palestinian state.

His remarks deserve repetition-not only because American ultra-hawks such as William Safire, his most favored interviewer, could not bear to quote them, but because they represent permanent political change. As reported by the Jerusalem daily Ha’aretz , his exact words in a speech to the Knesset’s Likud Party caucus on May 26 were as follows:

“I think the idea that it is possible to continue keeping 3.5 million Palestinians under occupation-yes, it is occupation; you might not like the word, but what is happening is occupation-is bad for Israel, and bad for the Palestinians, and bad for the Israeli economy. Controlling 3.5 million Palestinians cannot go on forever. You want

to remain in Jenin, Nablus, Ramallah and Bethlehem?”

In evaluating those words, it must be remembered that Mr. Sharon’s career, party and ideology have all been based on the concept that occupation and settlements in the Palestinian territories were necessary and even good for Israel. His government coalition rests on an alliance with other parties that regard the territories as a Biblical entitlement. His government has displayed no interest in removing even the settlements it acknowledges to be “illegal.”

The sincerity of Mr. Sharon’s sudden shift naturally is doubted, not only in Ramallah and Riyadh, but in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv as well. Having more or less physically destroyed the Palestinian Authority, he now demands that the crippled entity enforce “quiet” among the Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorists. He is suspected of maneuvering to placate the Bush administration.

Still, whether or not Mr. Sharon becomes the hawk who makes peace-as Richard Nixon did with Communist China-the Israeli prime minister has spoken fundamental truths that cannot be unsaid. Ever So Slowly, Progress in Mideast