Washington When terrorist bombs shake the Saudi dynasty and the United States stumbles badly in its first efforts to turn military victory into political stability in Iraq, a procedural advance in the Middle East peace process looks like a small event. But small can be good right now in a region on the edge.
The advance is the decision by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to accept the international "road map" to a two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That step, strongly urged on him by President Bush, cleared the way for Bush and Sharon to talk about meeting with the Palestinian Authority's new prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas.
Bush, Sharon and Abbas act like three men in search of something positive to spotlight. I'll take that as good news when viewed against the grim atmosphere of war, terrorism and sputtering economies that has prevailed globally since 9-11. When so much of the world is on fire, even a breeze of hope is welcome.
Sharon's acceptance has the earmarks of a tactical move made to deflect American pressure -- more precisely, to maintain the political friendship that Bush and the Israeli leader present as a glowing and productive one despite earlier clashes.
The road map has loopholes galore. Its formal acceptance could well be the high point of its utility, after which it will join the Jarring mission, the Rogers plan, Camp David II and other high-minded exercises in the vast graveyard of failed comprehensive peace initiatives.
Such plans serve primarily to propitiate the anger of the region, to replace the shooting with the talking if only for a while. The road map belongs to the tradition of the caring cynicism of peacemaking.
But in accepting it, Sharon has had to talk about his concept of peace with the Palestinians. And here is what he said to a hostile audience of his Likud Party followers Monday:
"I think the idea that it is possible to continue keeping 3.5 million Palestinians under occupation -- yes, it is occupation, you might not like the word, but what is happening is occupation -- is bad for Israel, and bad for the Palestinians, and bad for the Israeli economy. ...You want to remain in Jenin, Nablus, Ramallah and Bethlehem?"
Many of Sharon's listeners would have bet before he spoke that the answer to his own question was yes. Why he surprised them, by going well beyond the tactical bow to Bush they would have expected, is still a tale to be told.
But it will not be told by Sharon alone. Once you utter them, words no longer belong to you exclusively. They influence the thinking and actions of others. They produce results that you may not have intended or desired. Politicians wreck careers, diplomats invite wars, journalists spread confusion and pain by not paying sufficient heed to their words.
In my few conversations with him, Sharon has displayed a careful attention to words and their deeper meanings that is at odds with his widespread image as a gruff-to-boorish ex-general and superhawk. He no doubt tasted the word "occupation" -- previously off-limits to Israeli prime ministers and official spokesmen -- like bitter medicine on his tongue before speaking it.
Abbas is even more cautious in what he says and how he approaches power. In his first weeks as the Palestinian Authority's prime minister, he has conducted himself as a serious figure, calmly resisting Sharon's calculated demand for sweeping commitments as the price for Israeli acceptance of the road map.
Sharon and Abbas should now use the unwieldy and imperfect road-map process to reverse the leadership dynamic of mutual destruction that Sharon and Yasser Arafat pursued with such abandon. Sharon's words and tactics indicate a desire not to see Abbas fail, at least not at this point. Bush is also emphasizing how far the Palestinians have come, rather than how far they still have to go, in the reform process.
This is a fragile case for limited optimism -- for even a breeze of hope in the hot afternoon of Middle East history. I offer no guarantee that Sharon and Abbas will find it in their interest to help each other out in meaningful ways. The suicide bombers of Hamas and al-Qaida, the holdout Saddamists in Iraq and the vigilante zealots among Israeli settlers stoke the fires of intolerance to prevent that outcome.
But Sharon and Abbas can demonstrate that they can talk reasonably to each other about a peace that neither can grant now. That's a micrometer of a step -- and therefore one they can take together, if they will.
Jim Hoagland is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.