The visits of Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to the United States provided an opportunity to measure progress toward President Bush's goal of navigating the “road map” route to a Palestinian state alongside the current Israeli state in the sensitive Middle East region by 2005.
The picture is mixed two months after Mr. Bush's visit to the region. A rough cease-fire seems to prevail. Put another way, less killing seems to be occurring, compared with a combined average monthly death toll of 100 that has prevailed for nearly three years. That is a positive development, although the level of casualties is a symptom of the disease concerned, and a reduction in it - although very welcome - is not necessarily evidence that the root causes are being addressed.
The United States has provided the Palestinian Authority $20 million in aid so far this year, its first aid to the authority. Israel is requesting $10 billion in aid and loan guarantees this year.
On the positive side, Israel has pledged to release 540 of the some 6,000 Palestinian prisoners it holds. It has also opened up some of the highways and byways of Palestinian territory, which strengthens the political hand of the Palestinian Authority and also has important helpful economic effects, in Israel as well as in the Palestinian territories.
On the positive side for the Palestinians, it does appear that Prime Minister Abbas is gaining ground both in terms of governing the Palestinian territories, where his administration has influence if not authority, with respect to the discredited but still flopping Yasser Arafat, and as a credible negotiator.
On the negative side, with respect to the Palestinians, the reflagged Palestinian Authority, under Mr. Abbas, has still not fully addressed the problem of bringing the more violent Palestinian political elements inside the tent, lined up with the “road map” approach.
Mr. Abbas' approach of seeking consensus is understandable, but the activities of some of these groups are simply incompatible with bringing peace to the region.
One truly depressing factor is that the Israelis do not appear to have learned history's lessons about walls and fences. The ultimate fates of the Great Wall of China, the Maginot Line, and the Berlin Wall have all taught the same lesson - that good fences do not make good neighbors, and they don't work.
The unsuccessful experiences of the Chinese, French, and Soviet have unfortunately not deterred Mr. Sharon's government from trying to improve Israel's security through building in the West Bank some 85 miles so far of 25-foot-high concrete walls and razor-wire and electrified fences to separate Israelis and Palestinians. Israeli settlers in Palestinian territory in the West Bank and Gaza are another sensitive point, as the number of settlers reached a new all-time high in the first half of 2003 and now exceeds 231,000.
The only course open to President Bush and the United States at this point is to continue to push the two sides to take the steps along the road necessary to bring about a new status quo in the region - two states and sustainable peace and security for both Israelis and Palestinians. Financing walls and fences doesn't achieve that objective.