Can the "road map" that President Bush just launched do better than the dismal failure of prior Palestinian-Israeli diplomacy? Yes - if it avoids making the same mistakes. The failure of the last round was foreshadowed at its very start, on Sept. 13,

Can the "road map" that President Bush just launched do better than the dismal failure of prior Palestinian-Israeli diplomacy? Yes - if it avoids making the same mistakes.

The failure of the last round was foreshadowed at its very start, on Sept. 13, 1993 - the day of the famous handshake between arch-enemies Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn and the signing of the Oslo accord.

Less famously, the initiative's death knell came at the same moment, as a pre-recorded speech by Arafat to the Palestinians rolled on Jordanian television: Arafat avoided any mention of peace with Israel or the renunciation of terrorism, the central premises of that day's agreement. Instead, he explained how his having signed the Oslo accord fit into the context of destroying Israel.

Arafat reminded viewers of a decision by the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1974 to establish "a national authority on any part of Palestinian soil that is liberated or from which the Israelis withdraw." He presented the Oslo accord as a step toward the piecemeal dismantling of Israel.

In response, Rabin should have immediately put a stop to the negotiations. He should have declared the just-signed agreement void because Arafat had breached its core principle - Palestinian acceptance of the Jewish state. Rabin should have suspended his part of the bargain until Arafat spoke again to renounce violence and accept the permanent existence of Israel.

But Rabin, of course, did no such thing, not then and not at any other time during the remainder of his prime ministry, despite myriad cases of incitement and violence. Nor did his successors. To the contrary: Israelis showed themselves so indifferent to violence directed against themselves that - even as the violence continued - they withdrew from the large part of the West Bank and Gaza.

More remarkably, their most far-reaching concessions to the Palestinians came after the current violence started in September 2000.

This seeming illogicality had a reason, as Douglas Feith (now undersecretary of defense for policy), explained in 1996 in the Middle East Quarterly. The Israeli leadership, he showed, was engaged in a "withdrawal process, not [a] peace process." In one politician's words, the West Bank and Gaza were but "a burden and a curse." In effect, the Israeli government unilaterally pulled out of those territories.

Arafat exploited this reality by pretending to renounce violence and accept Israel, while in fact doing the reverse. When Israel allowed Palestinians to breach agreements with impunity, Palestinians not surprisingly developed a disdain for those agreements - feeling ever-more emboldened to kill Israelis. Finally, they launched the "Aqsa intifada" and the Oslo round collapsed.

This history has direct implications for the "road map."

The impetus for diplomacy this time comes from Washington, not Jerusalem; so, as Palestinian violence again flares up (seven Israelis have already been murdered since the road map's unveiling) American officials will be the ones deciding how to respond.

Bush has rightly emphasized the need for "a complete end" to violence and official incitement. He has also promised to insist on "commitments fulfilled." The monumental question ahead is whether such statements are Oslo-like rhetoric or truly operational.

What will happen if:

  • The promise of Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) to "act vigorously against incitement and violence and hatred, whatever their form or forum may be" is as hollow as Arafat's past assurances?
  • His renunciation of "terror against the Israelis wherever they might be" is meaningless?
  • Hamas and Islamic Jihad engage in violence against Israelis?

The temptation will be - as Israel's government did during the Oslo round - to overlook the Palestinians' trespasses, hoping that further benefits will somehow cause them to stop the incitement and the violence. But that approach failed last time and will do likewise this time.

Ironically, should President Bush be serious about his round of diplomacy succeeding, he must give more consequence to the murder of Israelis than did successive Israeli prime ministers. He must be willing to delay the timetable he has set out until the Palestinians truly fulfill his requirements of them.

The White House last fall established a "zero tolerance" policy for Iraqi violations of U.N. resolutions; it must do likewise today with the Palestinians: Any incitement or sanctioned violence stops the process cold.

Doing so will permit the Bush administration to help bring about Palestinian-Israeli reconciliation. But ignoring the violence will only make things even worse than they are now.