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May 19, 2003

The Bush Road Map

The Middle East peace plan is a no-lose gamble for Bush

WASHINGTON — President Bush's decision to advance the Middle East "road map" in the year before his reelection campaign represents a break with a cardinal rule of presidential politics. Presidents are supposed to touch the Israeli-Arab conflict only during the first two years of their first term. After that, hands off.

That is why President Nixon put forth the Rogers plan in 1969, President Carter embraced the Sadat initiative in 1977, President Reagan announced his plan in 1982 and President Clinton held the Oslo peace accord signing in 1993. As one former White House hand told me: "Push Israel toward peace before an election? A president would have to be nuts."

Bush is certainly not nuts and, more to the point, neither is Karl Rove, the presidential advisor who makes sure that political consequences are considered in nearly every policy decision. Certainly, Rove was consulted before Bush decided to push the road map. And it is safe to assume that he told the president that pursuing peace in the Middle East is not necessarily a political loser. If he thought otherwise, it is unlikely that Bush would have announced his support for the road map, no matter how persuasive British Prime Minister Tony Blair was.

The road map represents the best opportunity for an Israeli-Palestinian agreement in the 31 months since the intifada began, and Bush, following his Iraq war victory and with no fears of political reprisal at home, is uniquely positioned to push for a breakthrough.

Until now, Bush studiously avoided Mideast diplomacy. That he is reversing course suggests he and Rove believe Bush's high standing in the polls will survive a test of the waters. On the other hand, the president still has plenty of time to pull back, particularly if Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon refuses to budge. The Israeli leader's refusal to accept the road map during Secretary of State Colin L. Powell's recent visit, coupled with his statement that a settlements freeze is not "on the horizon," are not good signs.

Many in Washington assume Bush will retreat. Some cite his failure to even mention the road map in his recent speech on a Middle East free-trade zone as evidence he has. This month, Jack Abramoff, a pro-Israel Republican close to House leaders, said, "I don't think [Bush] gets anything politically if he has a peace deal." Abramoff is surely wrong. The president who achieves a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will certainly reap political benefits, especially among Jews[more]