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One Last Shot in the Middle East

Is the United States facing its last chance to help resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

January 24, 2007

Is the United States facing its last chance to help resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

The Bush Administration’s preoccupation with Iraq, however compelling, offers no excuse for its near-paralysis on the Israeli-Palestinian front. While it cannot go it alone, the United States still has the greatest sway in the region.

Thus, it can mobilize the resources necessary to orchestrate a multilateral approach that leads to a peace agreement. It can do so by applying simultaneously five principles:

1. Appoint a serious representative
The Bush Administration must demonstrate its seriousness about finding a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by appointing a permanent presidential envoy to the region.

During the past six years, more than a dozen emissaries, from General Zinni to former Senator Robert Mitchell, have scurried back and forth. Their peacemaking attempts were punctuated, in times of heightened tension, by an occasional visit by the Secretary of State.

What is really needed is a highly skilled professional with a presidential mandate, someone sensitive to both Israel’s and Palestine’s unique situation — a relentless, ruthless negotiator, with the authority to cajole or coerce, who will coordinate the entire negotiating process until both parties agree on a viable peace.

2. Urge Israel to make the first move
Since it has consistently supported Israel’s policies in general and been its ultimate ally, the Bush Administration can exert tremendous influence on Israel to moderate its policies in the occupied territories.

To change the dynamic of the conflict, Israel must undertake unilateral confidence-building measures aimed at the Palestinians that do not compromise its own national security. These measures will clearly signal its commitment to ending the occupation — a signal that Palestinians must see and hear.

Such measures include: a) forbidding construction of illegal outposts and dismantling all existing ones, b) ending the expansion of existing settlements with only minor exceptions, c) providing economic incentives and sustainable development projects to peaceful Palestinian communities, d) removing all roadblocks that do not threaten Israel’s security, e) allowing Palestinians to legitimately build and plant with no undue restrictions, f) forsaking any form of collective punishment, g) removing that part of the fence infringing on Palestinian territory, and h) releasing all prisoners who forswear violence, especially the most popular of them, Marwan Barghouti, who can revitalize Fatah political life, offer an alternative to Mahmoud Abbas, if it becomes necessary — and present a real challenge to Hamas.

3. Interact with Hamas
Although the Bush Administration refuses, rightfully, to negotiate with Hamas unless it accepts the three benchmarks of agreeing to Israel’s right to exist, respecting prior agreements and renouncing terrorism, Washington must, meanwhile, act decisively to bolster the Palestinian camp that supports the two-state solution.

Specifically, the Bush Administration must openly provide Mr. Abbas with financial support to go toward salaries for his administration and for construction projects to create jobs, military equipment and training — so he and his supporters can pose a credible challenge to Hamas.

Washington should also encourage Israel to make political concessions to widen his public support. Mr. Abbas must in turn rein in the violent Aksa Brigade, an offshoot of Fatah, and dispatch his security forces to troubled areas to keep the calm with Israel.

Empowering Mr. Abbas will enable him and Fatah to prevail — should there be a political, if not violent, showdown with Hamas.

4. Negotiate from the side
Regardless of how central it is to the peace process, Washington must adopt a multilateral approach here. President Bush should thus officially invite the other three members of the quartet — Russia, the UN and the EU — to assume a larger role in implementing the Road Map they all subscribe to.

Moreover, these other players can cement the peace — especially in the area of economic development and by providing peacekeepers — should they become necessary.

Given the civil war in Iraq and the current sentiments against the United States in the region, multilateralism becomes particularly critical: An Israeli-Palestinian peace is sustainable only by players with high stakes in the region.

5. Involve everyone
These efforts cannot be limited to what U.S. antagonists call “the Western club.” The Bush Administration must encourage Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan to more visibly support moderate Palestinians.

They must also make it clear to Hamas that it cannot defy the consensus of the Arab states — and that the continuation of the conflict undermines their very foundations — without suffering serious consequences.

Cairo, Riyadh and Amman must therefore not allow it to fester any further. In addition, the Bush Administration’s efforts to marginalize Syria have only aggravated regional problems.

This is why it must rethink its position toward Syria. Damascus remains the key player in any comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace talks — and can exert tremendous pressure on Hamas and other radical Palestinian groups.

This is all a tall agenda — and I seriously doubt that the Bush Administration is capable, or willing, to risk its little remaining political capital. But who knows — a presidential legacy does seem to matter. So Mr. Bush might decide not to squander the remaining two years after all and resolve to end the region’s most debilitating and ominous conflict.