- The Washington Times - Monday, June 6, 2005

Yesterday was the 38th anniversary of the outbreak of the Six-Day War in the Middle East. To better understand the slow progress under way toward regional peace, one must step back and look at the problem in generational increments. Or, in this case, a generation-and-a-half, plus.

The 1967 war was not the first, nor the last conflict Israel was to fight since its creation in 1948. Since the Six-Day War, the Jewish state fought Egypt and Syria in October 1973, when it repulsed a surprise attack on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar.

Israel then fought a series of skirmishes and two major wars with the Palestinian resistance in Lebanon; the first in 1978 when it invaded south Lebanon, moving as far north as the Litany River. A U.N. interim force was created and given the task to act as a buffer between the Palestinians and Israel.

The U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon was supposed to remain deployed about six months, at least according to the U.N. resolution that created the force. Twenty-seven years later, UNFIL remains deployed along the Lebanese-Israeli frontier.

And again in 1982 Israel invaded Lebanon, this time going all the way to the capital and setting siege to Beirut. Under the command of the current prime minister, Ariel Sharon, at the time the defense minister, Israel managed to have the Palestine Liberation Organization evicted from its Lebanon stronghold.

But even removal of Yasser Arafat and the PLO to distant Tunisia, Algeria and Yemen did not end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. With the Palestinian resistance threat distanced to far shores, the danger to Israel this time emerged from within, with onset of the first and later the second intifada.

Much has changed in those 38 years since the June 1967 war. Despite continued violence, peace is closer than ever:

(1) Israel has signed a peace treaty with Egypt, with the largest population and military in the Arab world.

(2) The other potential military threat to Israel’s security, Iraq, has been neutralized.

With both Egypt and Iraq out of the equation, the rest of the Arab world is unable to wage another war on Israel.

(3) Israel signed a peace treaty with Jordan, pacifying its eastern flank.

(4) That leaves Syria, still in a state of war with Israel. But realistically, with its outdated Soviet-era arsenal — T-55 and T-72 tanks, MiG jets and armor dating more than 20 years — Damascus could do little harm to Israel.

(5) Then there is the Lebanese Hezbollah. Although the real threat assessment from the Shi’ite militia toward Israel remains very mixed, many observers, including former Shin Beth chief Ami Ayalon, believe Hezbollah, while potent, represent no real danger to Israel’s security.

In the last 38 years, the monumental change in the longstanding Arab-Israeli dispute has been the change of attitude between Israelis and Palestinians, and the change of U.S. policy toward the Palestinians.

Several Arab countries where the word “Israel” was never uttered and the country was referred to instead as “the Zionist entity” now have diplomatic representation in Israel.

Similarly, it was not too long ago that Israel refused to recognize the Palestinian people. The PLO and the various units of the Palestinian resistance were never called as such in Israel. They were referred to as the “destructors” — “mukharebeen” in Arabic. Or simply, “the terrorists.” Arafat was vilified as the very face of terror by the majority of Israelis. Our current president sidelined him, accusing him of supporting terrorism.

But what a difference a few years and a new Palestinian leader makes. In this case, 38 years and the persona of Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen. Both he and three decades have helped bring about much-needed change.

Last week Mr. Abbas was received in Washington amid great pomp and circumstance, including a visit to the Oval Office. The Palestinian president was accorded all the honors of a visiting foreign dignitary of his rank, including a motorcade escorted by scores of Secret Service agents.

Mr. Abbas even looked the role when he mingled with a few hundred selected guests at a reception after his meetings with U.S. officials later in the evening.

On June 21, Mr. Abbas will have his second summit meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. The two leaders last met Feb. 8 in Egypt where they called a halt to 41/2 years of bitter fighting, and 50-plus years of animosity.

The Israeli prime minister’s office said the two sides would meet again to discuss the truce — now holding for more than three months — and to coordinate Israel’s planned Gaza withdrawal in August, after 38 years of occupying it.

It may well take another 38 years for full-fledged peace to break out in the Middle East. That prospect remains far better than the alternative.

Claude Salhani is international editor for United Press International.

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