- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 12, 2006

Memo to the Bush administration: solve the Middle East crisis now before it gets even more complicated — and deadly. Since creation of the state of Israel in 1948 and in the decades since, the Arab-Israeli dispute has only grown in scope and size, becoming more complex and explosive.

Since Harry S. Truman sat in the Oval Office, consecutive U.S. administrations have tried to solve the Arab-Israeli dilemma only to hit a brick wall and give up. The blame for this can either be directed to Israeli intransigence, or on the Arabs’ amazing ability to “never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity,” as Israel’s former Foreign Minister Abba Eban used to say.

Successive residents of the White House eventually ran out of time, or interest — or both — and turned their attention back to domestic politics, ultimately a field in which they tended to feel more comfortable. Domestic politics, after all, is something American politicians comprehend far better than intricate disputes over who knows what in places they can hardly find on a map, let alone name, run by people who are supposed to be allies but have a hard time differentiating from those who are supposed to be foes.

Sen. Trent Lott, Mississippi Republican, demonstrated America’s lack of knowledge about the Middle East. Mr. Lott recently told a group of journalists after meeting with President Bush that, “It’s hard for Americans, all of us, including me, to understand what’s wrong with these people,” referring to Arabs and Muslims.

Perplexed by the never-ending violence in the Middle East, the senator asked: “Why do they hate the Israelis and despise their right to exist? Why do they hate each other? How do they tell the difference? They all look the same to me.”

Now don’t let that surprise you since “President Bush had a similar challenge.”

Laurence Pintak, director of the Adham Center for Electronic Journalism at the American University in Cairo, wrote in a recent column: “It’s not that President Bush was unable to tell the difference between Sunnis and Shias. Even after 30 years of covering the Middle East, that remains a very difficult task. But the president had no clue they even existed.”

Mr. Pintak quotes a new book by Peter Galbraith, “The End of Iraq,” in which the author describes the president becoming “very perplexed during a briefing a few months before the invasion, when his guests kept talking about the Sunnis and Shias in Iraq. ‘I thought the Iraqis were Muslims,’ the president declared.”

Upon leaving the White House after four or maybe eight years, departing presidents also leave the Arab-Israeli problem unsolved for the next administration to tackle. In the interim, the Middle East problem only accrues interest, much like a profitable bank account — except in this case it holds not capital but hate and violence. The ultimate payoff comes after placing all those ingredients into a boiling pot and allowing them to percolate until the next Middle East war explodes.

Take the Six-Day War of June 1967. The United States intervened as a broker, after making sure Israel had ample amounts of guns and munitions to fight off the Jordanian, Syrian and Egyptian armies. Once a cease-fire went into effect, attempts to negotiate a lasting settlement went nowhere. Stagnation set in and the Palestine Liberation Organization saw the day. Within a short time the PLO produced a plethora of offshoots, from extreme leftist-Marxist groups (PFLP, DFLP) to more moderate (Fatah) to groups who made no qualms about hiding their affiliation to other Arab regimes (Saiqa, Syria) (PLF, Iraq), (PFLP-GC, Syria, Libya and sometimes Iraq.)

And as every administration tried to introduce a new plan from the United Nations Resolution 242 and 338, and other sets of numbers that make it sound like a game of bingo —the Rogers peace plan, and the George Mitchell plan, the Oslo accords, the quadripartite Roadmap to peace — instead of smoothing the way, only made it more complicated with new players increasingly intransigent. Look at Hamas in the Palestinian territories and compare it to the PLO, now seen as a moderate entity.

Oh, how much easier negotiating a peace treaty with the PLO would have been than dealing with Hamas. Oh, how much easier sitting at the same table with Syrian President Hafez Assad might have been than trying to deal with his son Bashar and the Islamist groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad now based in Damascus. And don’t forget the strings Damascus can pull in Lebanon.

Had a settlement to the Palestinian question been reached a decade or two ago, would there even be an Osama bin Laden to contend with today? Would the war in Iraq have been necessary?

In all likelihood, President Bush will leave the White House in 2008, leaving behind unfinished business in the Middle East. His successor will inherit an even more complicated situation, this time with additional players, such as Iran, which enters the scene with a nuclear card up its sleeve.

The longer the Middle East problem is left unresolved, the more violent the next conflagration. Need proof? Look at the level of violence unleashed during 34 days of hell in Lebanon over the summer when Israel and Hezbollah clashed.

The outcome of that short war — or rather long, by Middle East standards — is yet to be decided. But one thing is already certain, and that is the level of worry displayed by some Western intelligence agencies, given the uncertainty that continues in the Middle East, and the fact the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL II) with its soon-to-be 15,000 troops offers Syria, Iran and Hezbollah 15,000 potential hostages.

Mr. President, a settlement of the Middle East conflict should be a top priority.

Claude Salhani is international editor for United Press International.

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