Even President George Bush's fiercest critics with regard to his insubstantial involvement in creating peace between Israel and the Palestinians must admit that until recently he did not have the appropriate partners for an effort to reach a permanent arrangement. Yasser Arafat led the Palestinians for most of Bush's tenure, and the Israeli government was headed by Ariel Sharon, who preferred unilateral measures over an agreed arrangement. Afterward, the parties were sunk in domestic problems; Israel with the aftermath of the Second Lebanon War and the Palestinians with the struggle for control of the Gaza Strip. It is only now, toward the end of his presidency, that Bush is able to work with Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas, who are committed to implementing the "vision of two states" that he announced more than five years ago.
With all of the limitations that the U.S. presidential schedule places on the Middle East peace process, the opportunity created by the rare combination of Bush, Olmert and Abbas must not be missed. All three want to reach an agreement that will present the outline for a Palestinian state and an end to the Israeli occupation in the territories. Even if its implementation is postponed and conditioned on the road map, as Bush emphasized, its creation will create a political fact and save the parties and the international community from the exhausting need to return once more to the starting point and discuss the same issues again.
The agreed-upon arrangement that the leaders will sign will demonstrate that Israel intends to exist as a Jewish state that does not conquer another people and that the Palestinians prefer coexistence within reduced borders to perpetual war. At the Annapolis summit the three undertook to make the greatest effort possible to achieve an agreement by the end of the current year. In Jerusalem this week Bush reiterated that this goal is attainable. The parties have sufficient time at their disposal to formulate agreed solutions to the "core issues" and the practical problems on which there is disagreement. It would be a shame to waste it on finger-pointing and Pyrrhic victories.
The experience from the last several years teaches that Olmert and Abbas need more than goodwill - they need all the support from the president of the U.S. that they can muster in order to make progress. Bush's visit to the region extricated the negotiations from the mud in which they sank after Annapolis and pushed the parties into starting talks on the core issues. For these talks to move forward and turn into an agreement, they will need careful shepherding by the U.S. It will also be a test for Bush: Will he make do with pretty pronouncements about a brighter future or will he play a determined, serious role in making it happen?
In Wednesday's press conference at the Prime Minister's residence Bush spoke, perhaps slightly in jest, about "nudging them forward," calling his trip here "a pretty significant nudge." The president clearly understands his critical, irreplaceable role in advancing the peace process. The year remaining to him in the White House is the right time to realize that responsibility and to rescue the two-state solution. It must not be viewed as time that is lost from the get-go.
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