- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 17, 2005

It was not surprising that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made a football analogy when describing her negotiations with Israeli and Palestinian leaders this week. “Sometimes the last yard is the hardest,” she said.

When we met with Miss Rice the week before she left for the Middle East, she told us that Israelis and Palestinians need a “series of first downs.” And that’s just what she achieved: a critical conversion that will keep the process moving ahead rather than turning the momentum over to extremists.

American football may provide an appealing image, but a different kind of football is played in the Middle East: soccer, where there are no first downs. When the ball comes close to the goal, it is almost always blocked and kicked back.

So it’s no surprise that Miss Rice didn’t have an easy time making forward progress or that former World Bank head and Mideast envoy James Wolfensohn was so frustrated by the negative atmosphere between Israelis and Palestinians that he considered leaving without an agreement.

For all of the promise of Israel’s disengagement from Gaza and parts of the northern West Bank, the stagnating relations between Israelis and Palestinians created a growing instability. Without a steady hand to guide them, they could soon get swept up in another cycle of terrorism and counter-terrorism.

Miss Rice can provide that steady hand. Now that agreement on border crossings and a port is in place, she must make more progress on two other critical issues: Palestinian terrorism and Israeli settlements.

Miss Rice’s insistence on unambiguous and effective efforts by the Palestinian Authority to stop violence against Israelis would be significantly strengthened if the position of security coordinator, currently held by U.S. General William Ward, were expanded. Gen. Ward’s successor must be empowered further to help the PA reorganize and train its security forces, embolden them to take action against terrorist groups and coordinate security with Israel.

And as Professor Steven L. Spiegel of UCLA and other Middle East experts have suggested, Miss Rice should press the PA to militarily confront Palestinian Islamic Jihad. PIJ is the smallest of the terrorist groups but it has perpetrated the most violence recently. This Palestinian effort can be complemented by U.S.-led international drive to pressure Syria and Iran, which have very close ties with PIJ, to cut off support for Islamic Jihad.

Furthermore, the Palestinian public may also support Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas if he takes concerted action against Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Surveys of Palestinians reveal a generally negative attitude towards violence, largely because it leads to increased hardship in their day-to-day lives. “By moving against PIJ,” says Mr. Spiegel, “Abbas could also encourage a greater willingness by Israel to see whether his accommodating approach towards other Palestinian factions can succeed.” Significantly, Miss Rice reasserted this week that Palestinian terrorism and Israeli settlement activity must be addressed in tandem rather than in sequence. Though not popular in some American political circles, this view is essential to get the parties off the dime.

Miss Rice must remain resolute on the need for an Israeli freeze on expanding existing settlements, including roads and other associated infrastructure, and for the removal of unauthorized settlement outposts. The post-disengagement environment in Israel, with declining settler influence, provides the United States with an opportunity to press in this direction.

Following disengagement, Israel has been encouraged to bolster the standing of Mr. Abbas. Some of its measures, such as prisoner releases or withdrawing from additional areas in the West Bank, involve security risks, which. Israel will have to weigh when deciding whether or not to take these steps.

However, freezing settlement and dismantling illegal outposts have no security drawbacks. In fact, settlements can actually create security and political problems, such as the need to assign more soldiers to defend them.

Finally, it is vital to continue American-led international efforts to develop the Palestinian economy so that the PA can provide jobs and basic services for Palestinians. These efforts would also help strengthen the PA’s position among the various Palestinian factions, including Hamas. This is a critical goal as Palestinian legislative elections approach.

Miss Rice extended her time in the region to achieve an agreement on border crossings because they are critical to Palestinians’ economic growth. Sufficient funds and numerous ideas are available. Proposals include a housing fund to upgrade conditions in the Gaza refugee camps, an investment bank to mobilize financial resources for investment in factories to create employment and generate income, and a social welfare charity to compete with Hamas.

As Mr. Wolfensohn recently said: “The parties are not far from agreement, but they are finding that old habits die hard.” Miss Rice’s challenge is to help Israelis and Palestinians break those habits and learn some new rules to the game.

Seymour D. Reich is president of Israel Policy Forum and a former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Jonathan Jacoby is the executive director of Israel Policy Forum

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