- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 5, 2005

There is a reason every U.S. administration of the last three decades has been deeply committed to and involved in trying to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is not just that we favor peace and empathize with suffering on both sides. Ending the conflict is vital to our national interest.

No other unresolved conflict in the world saps the image and regard for our country like this one. Throughout Arab lands, the Muslim world and even Europe, the largest multiplier of anti-American hostility is the endless vexation of the Palestinian question. This is unfair, but it is the reality.

Over the years there have been many moments of optimism — from the original Camp David process begun by President Carter, the Reagan initiative in 1982, the Oslo process, the Madrid accords, the Camp David meeting hosted by President Clinton. But all ended in bitterness and failure. The cynicism of dashed hopes is epitomized in the canard that the difference between an optimist and a pessimist on the Middle East peace process is that the optimist is always wrong.

But the optimist need be right only once. And such a unique opportunity may be now before us. What is different now?

c On the Israeli side, the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza engineered by Prime Minster Ariel Sharon at great personal and political risk has created the most dramatic change on the ground since the 1973 war. Mr. Sharon, long vilified by international critics for intransigence, has joined a long line of tough-minded former Israeli military leaders from Moshe Dayan and Yigal Alon to Yitzak Rabin and Ehud Barak who have concluded endless occupation is not a viable strategy for a successful and democratic Israel.

c On the Palestinian side, the new president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, unlike his predecessor Yasser Arafat, is proving himself a leader committed publicly and privately to a negotiated two-state solution — Israel and Palestine living in peace and security — and to leading his people to a democratic polity.

These two positive sea changes are necessary but not sufficient for a breakthrough. The very difficult near-term issues of the status of Gaza, the access across its borders and with the West Bank, the demarcation fence in the West Bank, and Israeli policy and actions on West Bank settlements, not to say the full-blown negotiations to produce a final status agreement between Israel and Palestine require urgent international involvement and assistance. In this crucial arena, “international” is a euphemism for American leadership.

The other members of the so-called “quartet” who authored the current Road Map to peace — the European Union, United Nations and Russia — can and should be consulted and can be useful advisers. But only the U.S. can be the lead facilitator.

A current thorny issue provides a telling example. Palestinian parliamentary elections are scheduled for January. Should candidates under the banner of Hamas — which the U.S. and Israel have declared a terrorist organization — be permitted to run? The Israelis initially said not until they disarm and foreswear terror, although that position recently has softened. The Palestinians respond that barring any candidates under the Hamas imprimatur plays into the hands of extremists who will argue their exclusion delegitimizes the election. Mr. Abbas also notes that in the recent municipal elections in the territories candidates from his party, Fatah, won 83 positions to 13 for Hamas. This result tracks the polls that show more than 80 percent support for disarming Hamas and other nongovernmental militias in the territories. Defeating intransigence at the ballot box would send a powerful signal.

Since democratization in the region generally and in Palestine in particular are central to the Bush Doctrine to lance the boil of extremism. The U.S. has a vital interest to ensure a compromise emerges that both sides can live with. Such a middle ground should be possible.

For example, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, has suggested to Israeli and Palestinian representatives that each candidate personally foreswear violence. Reneging subsequently would bar that person from parliamentary participation, thus decoupling responsibility from the party to the individual. That is not necessarily the only way, but it is the type of solution honest brokers reach for to help parties “get to yes.”

We have recently seen a flurry of trips to Washington by high level Israelis and Palestinians, most recently Mr. Abbas. Such meetings are certainly necessary, but they are far from everything that must be done for the Bush administration to seize the moment. Ad hoc conversations in capitals must be fleshed out in three areas.

(1) The American positions on a number of the current issues — such as settlements, Palestinian actions on security, and Gaza access — must be spelled out specifically. The president’s comments during last month’s Abbas visit was a good start.

Tactics are also important. Simply referring to the moribund Road Map that has been honored in the breach by all three sides — Israelis, Palestinians and the Quartet — is clearly not enough. The specific steps, commitments and timetables for economic reinvigoration of Gaza and the West Bank must be shared publicly so there is a sense of hope and a demonstrable benefit of peace for the citizens.

(2) Because the time is not yet ripe for the commitment necessary for the president and secretary of state to weigh in as negotiators, the administration should quickly name a high-level emissary to ensure continuing forward movement. That person should have international standing and credibility and the clear confidence of and access to the president.

Former Secretary of State James Baker, or former Sens. John Danforth or Don Nichols would be obvious candidates. A two-person team has often worked well. In this case, someone knowledgeable about the region and its issues and known to the parties might be a good complement. Edward Djerejian, a former U.S. ambassador to both Israel and Jordan, fits that bill.

While there are excellent U.S. representatives in the region, such as former World Bank Chairman James Wolfensohn and Lt. Gen. William Ward, their mandates and focuses are limited. The top emissary would instead be seen to speak for (and to) top U.S. leadership on all issues: economic, political and security.

(3) While working on the plethora of current challenges and problems to ensure continued positive momentum, the administration must decide how to explore and flesh out the thorny final status between the parties. The fact such work is under way (even if quietly) will undercut the widespread fear on the Arab side that initial withdrawal from Gaza does not portend a withdrawal from Gaza alone. And if accelerated positive momentum continues, the need for quick consideration of these issues may arise with little warning. This could be done by nongovernmental organizations trusted by both sides, or by governmental representatives with tight discretion and at a level to permit deniability if there are leaks.

We are not talking about an endless process. Mr. Bush himself in 2002 set the goal for establishing a Palestinian state within three years. That deadline has passed, but reaching the goal before the end of his term would be a crowning achievement.

Administration action now will surely not guarantee the long-sought optimistic result. But failure to provide leadership will ensure the pessimists prevail to the detriment of our country.

Richard Fairbanks is a counselor and trustee at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and was President Reagan’s negotiator for the Middle East Peace Process.

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