With the close of the Iraq war–at least its first phase–the Bush Administration has another opportunity to seek a lasting solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict and to mend relations with the world community. This will be a test case for Washington’s willingness to abide by international law and work constructively with multilateral institutions.

As the latest suicide bombing in Tel Aviv and the intensified repression in Gaza make clear, Israelis and Palestinians desperately need outside intervention. At least 2,100 Palestinians and 700 Israelis have been killed since the latest uprising began. The Palestinian economy and governing institutions have been devastated, and the Israeli economy is in its worst recession in fifty years.

On the face of it, this would not seem to be an auspicious moment. An Administration that has flouted world opinion and international law in prosecuting a pre-emptive war against Iraq is now addressing a problem that demands acute sensitivity to long-established norms of justice and human rights. This same Administration has grown ever closer to the most extremist government in Israeli history, whose Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, is outdone in belligerence by Cabinet colleagues who openly call for ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians.

But with Britain, its sole major ally in the Iraq invasion, pressing for a resolution of the situation, and with Arab nations demanding evenhanded diplomacy from Washington, the Bush Administration is sending Colin Powell to the region and has set in motion the “road map” drafted by the Quartet comprising the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia. The road map, in addition to mandating an immediate cessation of violence and terrorism, improves on the Oslo Accords by calling for “an independent, democratic, and viable Palestinian state” alongside Israel and a settlement that will “end the occupation that began in 1967.” But it puts off until 2005, at the end of the negotiating process, all the really crucial questions: borders, Jerusalem, refugees and settlements–as if the settlements were not the key element of the occupation. The postponement of these fundamental issues is precisely what killed Oslo.

There are other flaws, chief among them the road map’s inordinate attention to changing the Palestinian government. No one desires genuine democratic reform more fervently than Palestinians themselves, but it is almost as if the road map’s architects were willfully denying the root of the conflict, which lies in thirty-five years of Israeli occupation, expropriation and settlement expansion. In fact, Bush and Sharon are far less interested in Palestinian democracy than they are in replacing Yasir Arafat with more pliable leaders like new Prime Minister Abu Mazen and Muhammad Dahlan, his security nominee. Dahlan’s record of unlawful imprisonment and torture during the Oslo period was condemned by both Israeli and Palestinian human rights organizations.

The evangelical Christian right and AIPAC are already mounting a campaign in Congress to undermine the road map and any other proposal that would make even minor demands on Israel. Europeans, Palestinians and Israelis who want peace and everyone struggling for a just resolution to this conflict will have to work to counteract these forces. Fourteen major Jewish philanthropists just made a worthy effort in this regard, sending a letter to Congress supporting the road map. Last year Bush pledged his support for a viable Palestinian state. He must now be held to his word.