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."
But the skeptical side of the minister recalls how Israel released prisoners after the Oslo accords were signed and how they returned as terrorists to kill Israelis. Without dismantling the infrastructure, a cease-fire merely gives terrorists time to regroup, rearm and reorganize. Until the Palestinian leaders end the incitement to violence in the schools, in the mosques and in the media, the incentives all run in the wrong direction.
Examples abound demonstrating why the minister is wary of the road map. In textbooks and Palestinian maps, Israel still does not exist and the Jews are depicted as cold-blooded killers. A new Palestinian educational film opens with a narration to appeal to raw Arab nationalism: "Palestine is the heart of the Arab nation, if it does not remain whole the whole of the Arab nation will be weak."
In one popular music video, a mother runs down the stairs to greet her daughter returning from school with flowers and candy. An Israeli soldier kills the mother and the camera cuts to the child who places the flowers on her mother's grave. High school seniors at a Palestinian graduation ceremony in Gaza this month heard a song with lyrics designed to inspire them to kill Jews: "With words and with a rifle we will sing ... From Jerusalem to Gaza."
Ariel Sharon told Prime Minister Tony Blair in London that he was prepared "to make painful compromises in the cradle of the Jewish people." He made no promises to give up the right to self-defense.
Sharon has participated in all of Israel's wars, beginning with the war of independence in 1948. He has fought as a commando, a parachutist and a tanker. He was seriously wounded twice. As a hard-liner with a unique opportunity, he has been compared to Richard Nixon: If Nixon could open China, then maybe Sharon can bring about an Israeli-Palestinian peace.
It's a long shot, but he promises to make it his best shot. He has to keep always in mind that the road map is not a map of a driveway in Dallas, and might lead to a dead end.