A Times Editorial
The setbacks to Middle East peace continue, but the Bush administration has played a positive role in keeping the atmosphere conducive to negotiations.
This week illustrates how progress is made toward peace in the Middle East: A few steps forward and a step or two back. The trick is to show a net gain in the right direction, and there were several encouraging signs.
Meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon at his Texas ranch, President Bush pointedly told Sharon that Israel cannot proceed with plans to expand settlements on the West Bank even as it prepares to move settlers from the Gaza Strip. Bush is correct that such an expansion would jeopardize any chance for peace, and while Sharon predictably resisted, the president's directness should prove helpful to all sides as negotiations continue.
Meanwhile, preparations are proceeding for the pullout of Israeli settlers from Gaza, an enormous step toward peace. The Israeli Defense Ministry on Thursday directed that military weapons in all Gaza settlements and a few West Bank settlements be turned back to the government. The mayor of the Jewish settlements in Gaza said Friday that settlers would comply with the order, which could reduce the possibilities for widespread violence fueled by extremists when the move occurs this summer.
In another significant development, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas ordered the consolidation of roughly a dozen security agencies. The security forces traditionally have been independent operators, which has contributed to the violence and lack of accountability.
Of course, the news was not all good. Israeli forces killed a Palestinian man in the West Bank city of Nablus. The circumstances are disputed, and Abbas complained it violated the truce but made no immediate move to sanction retaliation. That could be read by some militant groups that Abbas has managed to keep in check as a signal to fire back. Even if the weekend is quiet there will be more violence, and it will be up to Sharon and Abbas to resist reflexive reactions to the actions of those on either side who are unwilling to compromise.
The more important goal remains nurturing a climate where Sharon and Abbas can continue to take steps along the road to peace. Since the death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, the Bush administration has made positive contributions toward creating that atmosphere. Bush sent the necessary signals to Sharon this week, and he will have an opportunity to speak just as plainly when Abbas visits the United States.
Dangerous as it is to sound optimistic, there are hopeful signs that the Israelis and Palestinians are now led by men who are relatively straightforward about their intentions. Whether their constituencies will allow them to continue to work toward a common goal is the open question.