THE “road map” for an accommodation between Israel and Palestine approved by President Bush yesterday was first revealed on June 24 last year and confirmed at the United Nations in late–September. Its authors are the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations – the so–called “quartet” Its objective is to establish two equal states, Israel and Palestine, living side–by–side in peace by 2005. As even the poorest map–reader can see, the road is long with many twists and turns in it. As recently as last Sunday the New York Times carried a long report from Washington which began: “In a sharp rebuff to European allies, Russian and the United Nations, the Bush administration has decided not to put forth a plan for a peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians until after the crisis in Iraq is resolved, administration officials say.” The article quoted “a senior European diplomat” as saying “Let's face it, the road map is dead.” Clearly a week is just as long a time in politics in Washington as it is in London. Mr Bush's face said everything yesterday. He has been pushed by Tony Blair into making a statement about the Israeli/Palestine situation in order to ease the pressure on the prime minister in Britain and perhaps to make a difference to the mood in the Security Council. But the gesture will be widely seen as too little, too late. Mr Bush justified his timing by pointing to two recent developments: first, the conclusion of the Israeli election and the formation of a fairly stable governent by Mr Sharon; second, the appointment by President Arafat of Mahmoud Abbas as prime minister of the Palestinian Authority and, effectively, the acceptable face of the Authority with whom, hopefully, Israel and the United States are prepared to deal. Unfortunately, the value of these two developments is uncertain. As soon as the appointment of Mr Abbas was announced last Monday, it was denounced by Israeli officials as a “sham” because Mr Arafat will retain control over foreign affairs. It is well known that although Ariel Sharon has expressed support for the “road map” he has qualified this with several reservations, especially on the key issue of any halt to the construction of further settlements on Arab land. Also it seems likely that Mr Sharon's position on negotiations with the Palestinians will have hardened now that he has no Labour Party members in his coalition government. On the Palestinian side it is unlikely that Yassir Arafat will retire into the background; he is, after all, still the democratically elected President. It beggars belief that long–standing problems of this kind can be resolved at a time that the Middle East is about to be plunged into a war whose consequences are likely to be complex and long–lasting. Are Mr Bush and Mr Blair likely to be able to devote the time and energy to urging Ariel Sharon and Yassir Arafat to be nice to each other while they are themselves engaged in an illegal and unnecessary conflict? Although welcome in principle, yesterday's statement by Mr Bush and Tony Blair's gushing endorsement of it, are likely to be of little value in the near future.

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