A hole was torn last week in the international "road map" to Israeli-Palestinian peace when Mahmoud Abbas insisted that Yasser Arafat remains the unchallenged ruler of the Palestinian Authority.

"Arafat is at the top," Abbas, the PA's prime minister, told Egypt's al-Mussawar weekly, according to Reuters. "He's the man to whom we refer, regardless of the American or Israeli view of him. . . . We do not do anything without his approval."

Abbas's words should have ignited a firestorm. After all, a prerequisite of US support for the road map, spelled out clearly by President Bush last June, was an overhaul of Palestinian civil society, beginning with "new leaders, not compromised by terror" and committed to building "a practicing democracy, based on tolerance and liberty." Abbas, an Arafat henchman of 40 years' standing, was scarcely such a leader. Nonetheless, the White House hailed his appointment as a harbinger of Palestinian democracy -- and as proof that its policy of freezing Arafat out was having the desired effect.

But now Abbas has made it clear that Arafat, far from frozen out, is as alone controls Palestinian negotiations with Israel. The Palestinians are no nearer to democracy today than they were a year ago -- and never will be so long as Arafat retains his grip on power.

Does anyone care?

If Bush truly believed that Abbas was the key to a democratic, tolerant, and Arafat-free Palestinian Authority, he ought to be fuming now. If he didn't believe it, or if he didn't really mean what he said about Palestinian democracy being essential to peace with Israel, the media should be lambasting him for having pretended otherwise. Either way, it should be clear to all that the road map, which is predicated on top-to-bottom Palestinian reform, is already at a dead end.

And yet the road map isn't being written off as a nonstarter. The absence of Palestinian democracy -- the lack of even the first stirrings of a democratic awakening -- is getting little if any press attention. No spotlight is being trained on the long list of measures the Palestinians are expected to undertake in the road map's first phase -- from drafting a democratic constitution to naming an independent election commission to holding "free, open, and fair elections."

It is as if nobody really believes the Palestinian Authority will become "a practicing democracy, based on tolerance and liberty," so why waste time and breath talking about it?

And what is that attitude if not a kind of bigotry?

Let us be honest. How many Western journalists or politicians or diplomats could care less whether or not Palestinian society becomes a democracy? How many of them really think Palestinians are capable of replacing Arafat's corrupt and brutal despotism with enlightened self-rule? How many lose any sleep when Palestinians are deprived of political liberties and civil rights -- not by Israelis but by their fellow Arabs?

In another context, Bush has spoken of "the soft bigotry of low expectations." Isn't that a fair description of his own administration's attitude toward the Palestinians? True, his remarks last summer conditioned peace on democracy and tolerance. But has he done anything to make it clear that he meant it -- really meant it, the way he meant it when he said the Iraqi people would be liberated from Saddam Hussein's Baathist tyranny?

Bush was quick to embrace Abbas, a man with a long record of supporting terror and few credentials as a democrat. He has several times spoken of his "vision" of a sovereign Palestinian state alongside Israel. But where are Bush's strong words emphasizing that tolerance and democracy must come first? Where is his embrace of the few brave and beleaguered Palestinians who dare to openly criticize the corruption and ruthlessness of the Palestinian Authority? Where is his demand that the PA begin cleansing its public institutions -- that it stop broadcasting hate videos on its television stations, for example, and rewrite the schoolbooks that extol suicide bombers?

Much attention was devoted in recent days to whether Israel would accept the road map. Israelis, for their part, are focused on how the Palestinians will fulfill the roadmap's very first proviso -- crushing the terror groups that have murdered and maimed so many innocents. Both attitudes are understandable.

But in the long run, nothing is as indispensable to the rooting of peace than the transformation of Palestinian society into something more decent than the violent and backward thugocracy it is today. That will not happen without a lot of interest -- and pressure -- from outside. For anyone who cares about peace, for anyone who cares about the Palestinians, nothing in the road map is more important.