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Published: Sunday, 4/17/2005

Texas two-step

The visit of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to the United States - and especially the fact that it took place at President Bush's Crawford, Texas, ranch - was an important visible sign to the people of Israel that Mr. Sharon has Mr. Bush's support as he undertakes his nation's withdrawal from Gaza in the coming months.

The two men discussed at length U.S. financing of the withdrawal and resettlement by the Sharon government of some 8,000 Israeli settlers and Israeli Defense Forces from Gaza. However, no figure emerged from the talks on how much additional aid the United States will provide to Israel for the Gaza withdrawal and resettlement.

Mr. Bush reiterated his opposition to Mr. Sharon's intention to expand Israeli settlements in the West Bank, counter to Mr. Bush's road map to peace and the creation of a Palestinian state in the region.

A third issue was continuing and alarming reports that Israel might be considering a unilateral attack on Iran's nuclear facilities, something Mr. Sharon said is not planned.

Such an attack, probably similar to the one it carried out against Iraq in 1981, would carry the risk of provoking an all-out regional war between Israel and Iran. That in turn would carry a strong risk of drawing the United States in, given America's long-standing commitment to Israel's security and the likely ferocity of the Iranian response to such an attack.

Iran says its nuclear program is for energy; Israel suspects it has a weapons capacity component and thus opposes European acknowledgment of Iran's right under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which it has signed and Israel has not, to develop a nuclear energy program.

Another potential flashpoint will be Palestinian elections scheduled for July.

Hamas, an avowedly violent group, may pick up strength and gain more influence in that process. As the road map leads into the summer, both the Israeli and Palestinian sides will be hostage to the extreme elements among both groups who may seek to stop the Gaza withdrawal by violent acts.

Both the Israeli and Palestinian peoples have a great stake in what is about to take place in terms of long-term peace and stability. Middle East peace is very important to Americans as well. Making this work will be the test, and can be the crown, of Mr. Bush's presidency.

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