Thursday, June 07, 2007

The Middle Eastern Imperative

Published: June 6, 2007


On the 40th anniversary of Israel's capture of East Jerusalem and the West Bank, at a time when a Middle East peace appears more distant than ever, world leaders gathering for the G-8 summit have an obligation to move beyond tired formulas that have become an excuse for inaction.

Endless self-justification on the Israeli and Palestinian sides, combined with an abject lack of leadership from the White House, have produced a paralysis that comforts the radicals in both camps and so threatens the viability of a two-state solution.

I know Washington is one-crisis town - and that crisis is Iraq. I know the Israeli government of Ehud Olmert is weak. I know the Palestinian national movement is lacerated by the battles of Fatah and Hamas. I know the Bush administration is beleaguered. Plenty of reasons there to say this is no time for a new initiative.

Israelis have become very adept at saying we have no interlocutor; we face a Hamas movement bent on our destruction; we withdrew from Lebanon and got Hezbollah; we withdrew from Gaza and got daily rockets; and we know what the Palestinians say about us in their school textbooks.

Palestinians have grown slick about telling Israel and the West that you told us to hold an election and we did; you told us to form a democratic government and we did; you know that government represents over 90 percent of the Palestinian people; and yet you will not talk to us.

Such endless, and fruitless, finger-pointing suggests there's limited point in trying again to tackle this bottomless pit of a conflict.

But time is running out on both sides. Palestinians are not served by an impasse because their 59-year struggle for a national homeland is getting hijacked by Islamic fundamentalists using the mirage of Palestine to further a war to the death with the West.

As Dennis Ross, the former U.S. negotiator in the region, told me: "A national conflict you can solve, a religious one you cannot."

Israelis are not served because their dream of a stable Jewish and democratic state, imbued with the moral values of Judaism, depends on getting out of the West Bank, where the Arab demographic tide is against them. Only thus will the corrosive influence of the 40-year experience of lording over another people be terminated and a Jewish democracy assured.

So what to do? The first requirement is American leadership of the intensity displayed by Henry Kissinger in his 1970s shuttle diplomacy. Somebody - Condoleezza Rice, or Tony Blair after he leaves office - has to knock heads together day after day. A 30-day sojourn in the area would be a start.

The second requirement is for the United States to call in chips from its Arab allies. It should get far more leverage from the Riyadh Arab initiative, which reiterated the offer of recognition of Israel in return for a withdrawal to 1967 borders.

The rise of Shiite Iran has not turned moderate Sunni Arab states into Zionists, but it has readied them for an accommodation with Israel. The fact that most of the Arab world no longer questions Israel's existence represents what Daniel Kurtzer, the former U.S ambassador to Israel, called "a cosmic shift."

Rice should exploit this shift. She must prod Arabs to aid Fatah against Hamas and reinforce Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Short of recognition, high-level visits or the opening of business offices in Israel could signal Arab support for a genuine peace process. Egypt must stop smugglers getting weapons to Hamas in Gaza.

The third requirement is to get substantive talks going between Olmert and Abbas. The we-can't-talk-because-of-Hamas canard has to be overcome. Israel's partner in past peace talks has been the Palestine Liberation Organization. Abbas heads the PLO and Hamas is not a constituent member. Bingo.

These talks, overseen by the United States with other Quartet members (Russia, the EU, the United Nations), should center on achieving a Palestinian state in Gaza and the West Bank by the end of the Bush presidency. That is ambitious. Only ambition will move things.

A Palestinian state can exist short of a final settlement - and should. The frontiers of the United States have changed since it came into being; so have Israel's. Statehood is the first step to responsibility.

Short of finality, but beyond current trivia, there is room for inventiveness in the name of Israeli dignity, now compromised by power, and Palestinian dignity, now compromised by powerlessness.