- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 4, 2007

A major result of the war in Iraq has been the removal of the fortress that separated the Arab world, with its historical Sunni political dominance, from Shi’ite Iran.With assets in Iraq and Syria, a resurgent Iran flexed its muscles last summer through its alliances with Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Sunni Hamas in Palestine. Both alliances were cemented by a fight against Israel and signaled Iran’s bid to bypass the Arab governments and claim the Palestine issue with all its attendant symbolism. It is now a regional superpower that challenges the global superpower.

The moderate Arab regimes, Israel and Mahmoud Abbas in Palestine find themselves on the side of the United States and at odds with Iran and its proxies. It cannot be expected after decades of conflict to create a coalition between the Arab states and Israel to counter the threat of a Muslim nation, albeit Shi’ite, without progress on resolving the Palestine-Israel conflict. Recent events have rendered the creation of such a state more achievable because it fits in with a global and regional strategy to build a coalition against extremism. It falls upon the Bush administration in its remaining two years to use the opportunity created by the confluence of interests of the United States, moderate Arab States and Israel to contain Iran, its proxies and militant religious Shi’ite or Sunni movements. It is also in the national interest of the Palestinians to have their own viable, independent state on land occupied in 1967. These are the ingredients of a historic compromise. The immediate challenge is to translate policy into politics.

A partnership needs to be forged between Palestinian and Israeli leaderships under an American umbrella. Unfortunately, at a time that calls for decisive leadership, all three political systems suffer from serious internal strains with leaders who lack public support. Although the parties to the Palestine-Israel conflict have never come close to signing a final agreement, there is an internationally accepted solution that calls for two states on mutually acceptable borders based on 1967. However, tribal faultlines that block its realization are never too far below the surface. Should this crucial year or two fail to bring progress on the national struggle between Israel and Palestine, the conflict may evolve into a holy war that will cast its shadow far beyond the first decade of this century.

The United States, as a strategic partner to the Palestinians and Israelis, and a coordinator of the other regional partners committed to a peaceful Middle East, has to learn from its experience to be a more effective partner.It should aim to end this conflict, and not to manage it, outsource it or let it fester. Imposing solutions, pressuring partners or yielding to the more belligerent players must be avoided.The political process must be guided by a benign vision of the end game that will be a variation on the themes of Taba, the Geneva Accord, the June 24, 2002, speech of President Bush and the newly relevant Arab League Initiative.

The Palestinians and Israelis must negotiate on their own behalf, with the guiding and gentle American hand steering them.This U.S. role is indispensable not as an honest broker but as the only power that can be effective, both in dealing with the two parties as well as with other significant players whose input and support is crucial. People should disabuse themselves of the illusion that anyone else can play this role. A trilateral meeting between Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will appropriately take place after her meetings with the Quartet and representatives of Arab leaders. A successful conclusion of the initial meetings would be an agreement on the principle of partnership, and establishing guidelines and mechanisms that govern the partnership and its objectives.

Negotiations, especially those involving two leaders with serious internal challenges, will benefit from setting a low level of expectations.The advantage of the fact that negotiations will stretch over a period of time is that this time can be put to good use by preparing the Israeli and Palestinian publics to bridge the gaps between their expectations and reality. The whole range of issues to be negotiated between Israeli and Palestinian officials need to become subjects of public debate in order to convince their skeptical publics of the seriousness of the exercise.

More Israelis need to come to terms with the need to end the occupation, the policy of humiliation of the Palestinians, and the grinding and restrictive realities of imprisonments, checkpoints and impoverishment. Eretz Israel and the religious or mythical impulse that drove it must come to terms with the reality of its unsustainability. Innovative and bold ideas have to be discussed openly about the future of Jerusalem, borders, settlements and the refugees, as well as the future relations of Israel at peace with the Palestinians and all other Arab states. Securing the future of an Israel that lives in peace and not by the sword is a goal that would be enhanced by creating a partnership with a viable state of Palestine. The present relations between the Jewish people and the German people teach us that historic animosities, no matter how brutal and gruesome, are not insurmountable eternal obstacles to reconciliation and accommodation.It should be thinkable that the ending of Palestinian humiliation and its manifestation coincide with a campaign for a more measured and serious public debate in responsible media across the Arab world on issues related to Israel and the Jewish people.

The Palestinians must clearly define what they want. At the present time their system is beyond dysfunctional. They are hopelessly divided and are in intermittent civil war. A clear choice must be made between two visions. The first is a viable, contiguous, sovereign state of Palestine established on agreed-upon 1967 borders. Arab East Jerusalem must be the capital of Palestine or the conflict will not be ended. A Palestinian state would secure the rights of the refugees based on international legality, offering them citizenship in Palestine, providing them opportunities to live elsewhere if they so choose, affording them full compensation for their losses and offering them an apology for their original losses. In exchange, would be a painful acceptance of the fact that the vast majority of the four or five million refugees will not go back to homes, villages and towns that no longer exist. The United Nations, which dispossessed the Palestinians by a resolution that created Israel in 1947, should pass a resolution to establish Palestine and offer to set up the mechanisms for compensation and resettlement.

The other vision facing the Palestinians, the one that appeals to their victimhood, calls for liberating all the land of Palestine. It is advocated these days primarily by militant Islamic parties. It carries the apocalyptic vision of repetitive wars leading to destruction of unimaginable scale, one that the bulk of the Israelis and Palestinians and many others may not survive. In the short run, this vision promises no relief from the occupation and its misery for the Palestinians, no matter what it promises to deliver in the long run.

For the Palestinians to decide between these two visions they must believe that the goal of a viable Palestinian state is achievable. A small minority of Palestinians and others call for one state. Theirs is a voice of frustration that settlement expansion has already made a viable Palestine unattainable. Their argument will carry weight if it is not answered appropriately through a negotiated agreement.

The Palestinians are justified to be skeptical as they look at the settlements and expansion of exclusive roads and suffer the consequences of an unbroken record of broken promises. Palestinian belief that the option of a viable state is real will be enhanced immeasurably if they experience a palpable and speedy improvement in the reality of their daily lives and if they are presented with a political horizon.Political dividends will accrue to Palestinian leaders who advocate this vision in direct proportion to the improvement of people’s lives. This would deprive extremists of a political base and fresh recruits.

Mr. Abbas must outline his vision of a constitutional, secular, pluralistic state based on respect for the rule of law and campaign for it. In order to be effective, he must provide an answer to the central question thrown at him and at all moderates: what benefits has moderation brought us?It is in his hand, but just as importantly in the hands of others who would be his partners, to provide an acceptable answer. It is his obligation to clean up the system that he inherited but now leads, to reform and to provide accountability, safety and respect for the rule of law. It is the obligation of others to help him deliver to his people what he alone cannot do: more freedom, mobility and prosperity with a viable state at the end of the road.

A competition for the hearts and minds of the Palestinian people to choose between two visions is underway: one looks to a future of a viable, free state and the other yearns for the past to avenge injured dignity and to continue the fight. It is the collective responsibility of all those who are serious about ending this conflict to shoulder their responsibility to work together to end it in our time.

Palestine is the ultimate symbol and winning its mind and soul will determine the future of the Middle East, and perhaps world peace, for decades to come.

Ziad Asali is president of the American Task Force on Palestine.

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