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January 28, 2003

Axis Of Inaction

Jackson Diehl of the Washington Post writes that it is not the U.S. but rather the intransigence of the Arab states that has made Sharon the choice to lead Israel.
As Prime Minister Ariel Sharon cruises toward an easy reelection in Israel tomorrow, European and Arab governments look on aghast: This is a disaster, they intimate, for which the Bush administration is largely responsible. Thanks to the American president's coddling, Israel's leading hawk will now entrench himself for another term, primed to expand Jewish settlements in Palestinian territories and thwart any move toward a peace settlement. Some fear he might even take advantage of a war with Iraq to kill or expel Yasser Arafat and other Palestinian leaders.

This is all true, to a point. Despite delivering campaign bouquets to the majority of Israelis who favor a peace deal, Sharon has no intention of going along with a U.S. plan to create a Palestinian state by 2005 -- much less a freeze on settlements penciled in for this year. And the history of the past two years suggests President Bush is unlikely to press the old general on it, notwithstanding the White House's frequent rhetorical tributes to the two-state "vision."

Yet Arabs and Europeans who see the Middle East peace process as stalled by a Bush-Sharon axis of intransigence are wrong. The real problem in the Israeli-Arab conflict the past six months has not been Bush's failure to break Sharon but the near-collapse of a once-aggressive Arab and European initiative to reform and renew the Palestinian leadership. Sharon will be reelected not because of American support, or for lack of an alternative, but because the pro-peace majority in Israel perceives no credible Palestinian partner with whom a deal can be struck.

That is what the Europeans and Arabs promised to change after Bush's speech on a two-state solution seven months ago. German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer promised to insist on a reform of Palestinian government; senior Saudi and Jordanian ministers shuttled in and out of Washington, proclaiming that Palestinian suicide bombings would soon be reined in. "Finally," said the Jordanian foreign minister, Marwan Muasher, "Arab states are coming to the conclusion that this cannot go on. This is serious, and this is a change of behavior."