PRESIDENT Bush's decision to acquiesce in Israel's settlements on the West Bank constitutes a sharp reversal in U.S. policy that may kill the so-called road map to peace and only ensure continued Arab-Israeli violence.
Mr. Bush announced the move during this week's visit of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to Washington. It represented administration abandonment of the road map approach to resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian issue that Mr. Bush developed in coordination with the United Nations, the European Union, and Russia, and announced himself last June.
Mr. Sharon's stated intention to withdraw Israel's forces and most of its settlements from Gaza, the other territory along with the West Bank intended for the Palestinians in the road map, would constitute a net gain for the Palestinians from their present situation in occupied Gaza.
But several problems remain.
First, Mr. Sharon still has to face a referendum May 2 within his own Likud party on withdrawal from Gaza. He is uncertain of the party's support, his position in internal Israeli politics weakened by a corruption scandal.
Second, it is not clear that all 20 Israeli settlements in Gaza, with a population of about 8,000, would be withdrawn.
Third, although Mr. Sharon says that Israeli troops would be withdrawn from Gaza under his plan, there would be nothing to stop them going right back in again if Israel deemed it important to its security.
The most important part of the new deal is that, with the withdrawal of settlements from Gaza, the Israelis will no longer consider themselves engaged by the road map plan. Most important, as they see it, they would be free of any obligation to remove their 230 settlements from the West Bank.
That position is basically what Mr. Bush agreed to with Mr. Sharon on Wednesday. The objective of all reasonable, realistic parties interested in achieving a sustainable peace in the Middle East has been secure and recognized Israeli and Palestinian states.
It is starkly clear that the United States' acceptance of an Ariel Sharon effort to get the Palestinians to settle for Gaza, the poorest piece of real estate in the package, just isn't going to work. It will not put an end to violence between Israelis and Palestinians. It will not help bring peace to the region. It doesn't move the ball forward even one foot toward a conclusion.
In its acceptance of a bilateral U.S.-Israeli resolution of the extremely sensitive issue of territory - with the Palestinians totally absent from the table - and in its abandonment of the workable road map approach, the administration only sets the scene for more Israeli-Palestinian bloodshed.
Against the already tense background of U.S.-Arab and Muslim relations brought about by the Iraq war and occupation, Mr. Bush's change of policy in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a catastrophe in terms of prospects for long-term peace, and for the situation of the United States in the Middle East.
Why did he do it?
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