In private conversations with Bush administration officials this past week, I was favorably impressed by their realism about the U.S.-sponsored "road map" plan to stop Palestinian-Israeli violence. But I worry nonetheless that things could go awry. Those

In private conversations with Bush administration officials this past week, I was favorably impressed by their realism about the U.S.-sponsored "road map" plan to stop Palestinian-Israeli violence. But I worry nonetheless that things could go awry.

Those worries stem from the seven years (1993-2000) of the Oslo round of Palestinian-Israeli diplomacy, when well-intentioned Israeli initiatives to resolve the conflict only worsened it. I learned two main lessons about Palestinian-Israel negotiations:

  • Unless Palestinians accept the existence of Israel, the agreements they sign are scraps of paper.
  • Unless Palestinians are held to their promise of renouncing violence, agreements with them reward terrorism and therefore spur more violence.

My caution today concerns both points. Palestinian ambitions to destroy the Jewish state remain alive. And the U.S. government's ability to enforce Palestinian compliance more effectively than did the Israelis remains in question.

Questioned again and again on these issues of Palestinian intentions and American monitoring, the senior officials I spoke with offered impressively hard-headed analyses:

  • On Palestinian intentions to destroy Israel, they echo Secretary of State Colin Powell's recent statement, that he worries about "terrorist organizations that have not given up the quest to destroy the state of Israel."
  • On the need to enforce signed agreements, both officials insist that the road-map diplomacy would screech to a halt if the Palestinians fail to keep their word. One of them also volunteered that Israel would not be expected to fulfill its promises if the Palestinians betrayed theirs.

I was especially pleased by the modesty of their aspirations. As one official puts it, "We have a shot at peace." He emphasized that the U.S. president cannot merely snap his fingers and expect Palestinians to do as summoned. He showed a reassuring awareness that this project is chancy and that the odds of its succeeding are not that good. All music to my skeptical ears.

Yet I worry. Won't human nature and governmental inertia combine to induce the Bush administration to push the road map through to completion, riding roughshod over the pesky details to keep things moving forward? Suppose Palestinian violence continues; won't there be a temptation to overlook it in favor of keeping to the diplomatic timetable?

Such has been the historic pattern whenever democracies negotiate with totalitarian enemies to close down their conflicts, starting with the British-French attempts to appease Nazi Germany in the 1930s, then the American-Soviet détente in the ‘70s, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in the ‘90s and South Korea's sunshine policy with North Korea since 1998.

In each case, the delusion that sweetening the pot would bring about the desired results persisted until it was dashed by a major outbreak of violence (the German invasion of Poland, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the second Intifada).

In theory, American policymakers can break this pattern. Should Palestinian violence against Israel continue, they would announce something along the lines of: "Well, we did our best, but the Palestinians failed us. The road map, a good idea in principle, must be postponed until they are ready for it. We are giving up on it for now."

Can they do it? We'll probably find out soon enough, for the violence has continued despite signs that the Palestinian Authority has started cracking down since three Palestinian terrorist organizations agreed to a hudna ("temporary cease-fire") on June 29.

Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz summed up the situation this way: "There is a certain decrease in the number of terror warnings and also a certain decrease in incitement, but [the Palestinians] still have a long way ahead of them in order to live up to their commitments."

How demanding will the U.S. government be about those commitments? One troubling sign came a week ago, when Powell said, "We can't let . . . minor incidents or a single incident destroy the promise of the road map that is now before us."

Oslo is just a slippery slope away; to prevent a repetition of that debacle, American officialdom needs to reject all violence, and not wink at "minor incidents."

The goal, everyone needs firmly to keep in mind, is not the signing of more agreements but (short-term) the ending of terrorism and (long-term) the Palestinian acceptance of Israel as a sovereign Jewish state.