George Bush and Ariel Sharon have the love of ranches in common. Each man uses his spread in the rough country as a retreat and as a symbol of identity. Ranchers are plainspoken men of the simple verities. Ranchers are tough. Ranchers know how to stand alone. But what they really love about the spread is the open view. Yesterday, Bush and Sharon met at the Texas ranch. Yet the scene on which their eyes fell was not pretty.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is at a crucial point. Some months ago, a window of opportunity seemed to open with the death of Yasser Arafat, the election of the moderate Mahmoud Abbas, the apparent end of the intifada, the decision by Sharon to evacuate Jewish settlers from Gaza, a new spirit of compromise animating majorities of both populations. But realities have settled in, and Israelis and Palestinians are alike in being worried. Abbas and Sharon are alike in being targets of extremist hatred from elements among their own people.
On the Israeli side, the impending Gaza pullout has put diplomacy on hold. The meaning of the forced removal of nearly 9,000 Jewish settlers from that enclave is unclear. Having set a precedent, will it lead to the dismantling of Jewish settlements in the West Bank? If it occasions traumatic violence, whether Palestinian or Jewish, will it mark, instead, the end of Israeli withdrawal from occupied territory? Will Palestinian militants claim the Gaza withdrawal as a victory for violence? Even if things go well, can Gaza sustain an economy on its own?
Questions from the Palestinian side are even more urgent. Does Israel's nearly completed ''security barrier" effectively define the permanent border? If announced new Jewish settlements are built east of Jerusalem, cutting off Palestinian areas, where does that leave the Palestinian hope for Jerusalem as capital of its nascent state? How can that state come into being at all, with Israel tightening its grip on much of the West Bank?
Meanwhile, how can Mahmoud Abbas address problems of corruption in the Palestinian Authority, much less clamp down on Hamas militants, without tangible improvements in Palestinian living conditions and fresh signs that an acceptable peace with Israel is still possible? What happens if Hamas scores victories over Abbas's Fatah movement in upcoming local and legislative elections? How can Abbas maintain power and the Palestinian truce -- if Israel and America give him nothing of what he needs?
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The most hopeful development in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict across the last decade was the arrival by both sides at a broad consensus, articulated by various ''peace plans," on the shape of a final settlement. Central to every envisioned end point was the so-called ''two-state solution," with anticipated compromises on the nettlesome questions of Jerusalem and the status of Palestinian refugees. No complete agreement was ever achieved, but at least the goal had become clear, and both populations embraced it. Peace could be imagined.
But now that vision itself is at risk, repudiated even by some who created it. The Sharon government is in no hurry to take up final-status questions again. Instead, a tactic of unilateral separation, coupled with the new ''facts on the ground" -- the security barrier, expanded settlements around Jerusalem -- preempt negotiations. Palestinians want no part of the truncated state that such facts define.
Which leaves things where? That is the question that was on the table between the two ranchers yesterday. Soon, Mahmoud Abbas will follow Sharon to a meeting with Bush. While the Israeli's purposes are served by delay, the Palestinian's prospects are being destroyed by it. Abbas will tell Bush that the touted window of opportunity is closing fast. The post-Arafat truce has quite perversely turned into an impasse, and only Washington can break it. The political, diplomatic, and economic resources of the United States of America have never been more urgently needed -- needed now.
One imagines George W. Bush with a piece of straw in his mouth. His boots up on the table. Shucks. What a view. But does the president see that the very survival of Israel -- as a democracy, even as a nation -- is at stake here? Does he see the ever more desperate plight of the Palestinian people? Having turned Iraq into a recruitment and training center for terrorists, can he see how the final collapse of peace between Israelis and Palestinians will fuel Arab and Muslim hatred of America? What is Bush waiting for? What good is the view if the rancher is blind?