Why are pro-Israel groups in this country so fussed about the "road map," the blueprint for Palestinian statehood that could be officially delivered to Israel and the Palestinians in the next few weeks?
Despite the fact that the three-stage plan demands a quick end to Palestinian terrorism and doesn't call on Israel to do much until the violence subsides, pro-Israel groups are generally trying to get the administration to back off.
The reasons tell an interesting story about a Jewish community that fears new clashes between Jerusalem and Washington over long-standing sore points like settlements -- and new internecine conflict in a community whose deep divisions over peace in the Middle East have been papered over by nearly three years of Palestinian violence.
The Bush administration is a reluctant player in the road map game. From the start, President Bush had no great desire to rush into the maelstrom of Mideast peacemaking, even less to give an expanded Mideast role to the other members of the international "Quartet" -- Russia, the European Union and the United Nations.
And like Israel's leaders, he is dubious about whether Palestinian reform will have progressed enough to produce a provisional state by the end of this year and a permanent one by 2005, as the plan demands. However, there are compelling diplomatic reasons for U.S. backing for at least the formal introduction of the road map.
The moment the Iraq War begins to wind down, new priorities will reshape U.S. policy. At the top of the list: repairing relations with European allies and convincing Arab states that Washington's goal really is democracy and freedom in the region, not conquest and cheap oil.
Both blocs demand a new international push for an Israeli-Palestinian agreement, with strong U.S. participation; both see the road map as the best available vehicle.
Arab leaders insist that without some progress in addressing Palestinian grievances, anti-U.S. and anti-Israel fury will continue to spread in their part of the world and instability will mushroom -- in some cases threatening their own corrupt regimes. The Europeans, eager to appease their Islamic immigrants and Mideast business partners, see the road map as the best way to regain their lagging influence in the region.
Â British Prime Minister Tony Blair, under fire for sending troops into Iraq, has an even more compelling reason to be seen as a cheerleader for a quick Israeli-Palestinian settlement: political survival.
Not surprisingly, Ariel Sharon sees the plan through a different lens. The prime minister has said he supports Palestinian statehood, but left out several details -- like when. But one thing is clear: he is in no rush.
Mainstream pro-Israel groups are hoping the administration will find a way to put off delivering the road map. Failing that, they want the administration to reinterpret the road map to focus even more on Palestinian responsibilities.
That's the gist of a congressional letter backed by the pro-Israel lobby, which urges Bush to concentrate on several of the principles of his June 24 Mideast "vision" speech -- the principles about Palestinian reform and an end to terrorism, not his assertion that "Israeli settlement activity in the occupied territories must stop."
But there is another, closer-to-home reason many Jewish leaders hope the road map will go away. A majority of American Jews -- like most Israelis -- continue to support Palestinian statehood and a negotiated settlement involving most of Gaza and the West Bank.
But American Jewish groups and their leaders are supporting an Israeli government that seems to have a very different vision for the future. The dimensions of that gap were revealed at last week's meeting of the pro-Israel lobby, when a Christian conservative's cry for Israel to give up no more land was lustily cheered -- and Secretary of State Colin Powell's mild chiding on settlements produced hisses.
If the road map moves forward, it will speed the inevitable clash between Jews with very different views of the best route to peace. So for many Jewish leaders, the push to publish the road map represents both a potential diplomatic crisis and a communal one. Â