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Words to Be Measured

Wednesday, February 23, 2005; Page A18

SOMEWHAT surprisingly, President Bush gave pride of place in his address in Brussels on Monday not to his most treasured goal -- the spread of democracy -- but to that of Europeans: a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. "Our greatest opportunity and immediate goal," he declared, "is peace in the Middle East." A settlement, he added "is now within reach . . . and the world must not rest until there is a just and lasting resolution to this conflict." Given the decline of violence and rapid progress toward detente between Israelis and Palestinians in recent weeks, these statements may not sound bold. In fact, Mr. Bush will be tested -- or haunted -- by his words, and sooner than it may now appear.

For now, Mr. Bush has reason to boast that a couple of controversial decisions during his first term, when Israelis and Palestinians were engaged in seemingly endless warfare, are beginning to pay off. Three years ago Mr. Bush cut off contact with Palestinian President Yasser Arafat and demanded the reform of his government. Now, after Mr. Arafat's death, such reform is seemingly underway. A new president, Mahmoud Abbas, was democratically elected, and a new Palestinian cabinet announced yesterday placed reformers in key positions. One Abbas ally has been put in charge of reorganizing security forces; another, who lost a leg in an assassination attempt after criticizing Mr. Arafat, was named minister of information. A British-sponsored international conference on the reconstruction of the Palestinian government next week should give the new administration a strong boost.

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Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, meanwhile, is coming closer to rewarding the extraordinary bet that Mr. Bush placed on him nearly a year ago. At that time Mr. Bush endorsed eventual Israeli annexation of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, and rejection of any return of Palestinian refugees, as a way of supporting Mr. Sharon's plan to withdraw Israeli soldiers and settlers from the Gaza Strip. In the past week Mr. Sharon has won final approval for the Gaza evacuation from the Israeli parliament and his cabinet; though he has more hurdles to cross, the pullout is to begin in late July. Mr. Sharon has also taken steps to strengthen an incipient Israeli-Palestinian truce, releasing 500 prisoners and planning the phased evacuation of troops from West Bank towns.

So prospects seem bright for the coming six months. Yet it is likely that more trouble lies immediately beyond that horizon. Mr. Abbas has yet to come up with a plausible plan for permanently neutralizing the Palestinian extremist groups that wage war with suicide bombings and oppose any peace settlement with Israel. Mr. Sharon's cabinet has approved the completion of Israel's border-like security fence, which by the end of this year will enclose about 7 percent of the West Bank and tens of thousands of Jewish settlers with Israel. Mr. Sharon's undisguised aim is to freeze that status quo indefinitely, leaving a permanent settlement to a future generation.

That's why it's significant that Mr. Bush underlined his commitment to a "lasting resolution" in the near term and effectively dismissed some of Mr. Sharon's ideas. Mr. Bush said that Israel "must freeze settlement activity," something it has never done; he said that a Palestinian state "of scattered territories," which Mr. Sharon has long envisaged, "will not work." If an Israeli-Palestinian settlement is to be achieved soon, Mr. Bush will have to press those principles on an Israeli leader he has never seriously challenged. By articulating them before European leaders, and at a moment when he could have limited himself to cheering on the recent progress, he ensured that he will be measured on whether he follows through.

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