June Gloom

Two steps forward, three steps back.

That is the definition of any Middle East peace process, and the most important question now is whether President Bush, who very publicly committed himself to a “road map to peace” last month, will tough it out.

The gruesome attacks this week that have claimed almost two-dozen Israeli lives so far, as well as Israel’s assassination attempt Tuesday on Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantissi, have demonstrated that the door Bush must walk through is not just shut, but bolted closed.

“They know he’s going to be pulled deeper into this,” a source who is close to several of the president’s aides told me by phone on Wednesday, “but he’s not going to let it become a tar pit.”

The Bush administration’s A-Team must now rush in and figure out a way to prop up Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, further neutralize president-for-life Yasser Arafat and pressure Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to keep the surprises to a minimum. They must get the benefits flowing to the Palestinian street, and, at the same time, turn off the flow of terrorism into Israel. And they must do all this now. Piece of cake.

Following Israel’s attempt on Rantissi’s life — an attack that killed a woman and a baby and wounded 25 others — administration officials sought to understand Sharon’s motivation. Bush’s condemnation was not as strident as the press made it out to be. The phone call from the White House went from national security adviser Condoleeza Rice to Sharon’s chief of staff Dov Weisglass, not from Bush to Sharon. If Sharon can offer credible evidence that Rantissi was — is — the ticking bomb Israelis claim him to be, that will go a long way to calming administration jitters that Sharon is seeking a way out of the peace process, or is risking the whole venture in order to shore up support to his right.

Sharon, or any Israeli leader, must not go forward with a peace process if any step is seen as a capitulation to terror. United States diplomats and the CIA, as well as the Shin Bet, will need to provide him with assurances that Abbas is doing all he can to prevent terror, even if the inevitable attacks occur. Then Sharon will have to do what Ehud Barak and Yitzhak Rabin before him struggled to do: explain to Israelis under attack why the peace process is still worth pursuing.

The more delicate piece of the puzzle is Abbas. Bush likes him, finds him courageous. Abbas does have more guts than most of us, as demonstrated in his showdown with Hamas over the cease-fire talks last week. But he is also a pope without troops, and, given the continuing violence, is unlikely to recruit many these days. What he needs is time, and Bush and his team must find the words and the way to buy him some.

It’s by now received wisdom that the man behind the curtain in all of this is Arafat. He can throw wrenches into this machinery at will, but the administration, which so rightly cast him aside as yesterday’s terrorist, has little leverage with him. If the Europeans and Arab nations want to play a constructive role here, they can help Bush help the Palestinians by keeping Arafat in line.

After Wednesday’s attack in Jerusalem, an e-mail went out with the bloodless but terrifying statistics: 17 people dead (as of press time), five more in comas, five in intensive care, seven undergoing surgery, 108 people hospitalized. Staring at the earliest photos taken at the screen of the bombing on Jaffa Road, I felt shattered, and I can’t begin to imagine the agony of a society at constant prey to such murderers.

But another recent statistic is just as heart-wrenching. Palestinian polls are finding greater support for Hamas than for Fatah. Hamas, an organization whose stated goal is the destruction of the Jews in their homeland, now regularly outpolls Fatah, whose political focus has been negotiation with Israel. Part of Hamas’ growing popularity is that it provides social services — thus it polls high among Palestinian women.

But Hamas is also that rare political entity that does what it says it will do. One reason its cease-fire talks with Arafat broke down last January was that Hamas founder Ahmad Yasin accused Arafat of untrustworthiness. “The PA itself supports the jihad activities and the suicide attacks,” he said, “whilst at the same time it requests us to put a stop to them.”

That echoes the American and Israeli opinion of Arafat, an irony that would be funny if the results weren’t so deadly. Observers have long noted that Hamas is waiting in the wings, ready for its close up, with a leadership and infrastructure that could almost seamlessly replace that of Fatah. That would be a victory for terror that the world, much less the Israelis and the Palestinians, could not afford.

When Bush met with Sharon and Abbas, he cast his dedication to the cause of Mideast peace in spiritual terms. It’s worth noting that he declared his intention to liberate Iraq in similar language. If he made good on his commitment in Baghdad, perhaps he can be counted on to follow through with his commitments in Aqaba. There is probably no way around this tar pit but straight across, and that’s a path I hope the president takes.