The first time George W. Bush got a good look at Israel it was from the air. The year was 1998. Ariel Sharon, who was foreign minister at the time, wanted the governor of Texas to see the literal dimensions of Israel's problem. He took the future president on a helicopter ride to see at first-hand the tiny nation's geographical fragility.
When George W. saw how tiny Israel actually was - at its narrowest point, only nine miles separate the West Bank and the Mediterranean Sea - he joked that "most driveways in Texas are longer than that."
The airborne image would not be forgotten when he became president, but it took on greater urgency after Sept. 11. George Bush developed a renewed appreciation for the victims of terrorism and the ease with which terror could be inflicted by suicide bombers on the tiny state of Israel.
If a long driveway is nevertheless short compared to the expanse of land surrounding it in Texas, the president understands that a road map to peace in the Middle East merely indicates the length and hazards of the journey.
He will learn more about the state of the treacherous terrain at the end of this month, when he meets separately with Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in Washington. He'll no doubt get an earful from each man about who's driving too slow on the road.
Sharon has moved troops out of key locations in the West Bank and Gaza and has begun to dismantle wildcat settlements there. He is setting free several hundred prisoners. The Palestinians want more troops out and more prisoners free, including terrorists with blood on their hands.
The three leading Palestinian terrorist groups - Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades - have announced a cease-fire, but it's only temporary, and the Israelis want the militants disarmed and the terrorist infrastructure destroyed.
To discuss the prospects for an Israeli peace in our time, Tzachi Hanegbi, Israel's internal security minister, sat down with a few journalists over coffee in a cafe on Capitol Hill the other day to talk about why he thinks the roadmap probably won't work. As a Likud member of the Knesset, Hanegbi abstained rather than vote against the road map, as his more hawkish colleagues did. "I'm skeptical," he says, "but with a touch of hope."
The hope resides in George Bush. "He's not as naïve as President Clinton and he won't be misled into seeking a Nobel Prize," he says. "His speeches have moral clarity."
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