Time for new approach to Israeli-Palestinian conflict

November 19, 2006|By Nomi Morris

After this month's midterm election, President Bush finally announced his willingness to reassess his Iraq policy.

Why stop there?

Now that a fresh wind is blowing through Washington, it is the perfect time for the White House to revise its policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as well, by restarting active diplomacy.

The administration's "stay the course" approach on Israel has proved just as disastrous for that part of the Middle East as have its miscalculations on Iraq and Iran.

The day Donald H. Rumsfeld resigned as defense secretary, the Israeli army killed 18 civilians in an airstrike in the Gaza Strip that went off target, reportedly because of a technical malfunction. The mass anger over the death of many members of an educated, nonmilitant Palestinian family, including several children, has again raised the threat of retaliatory terror attacks inside Israel.

Although the tragedy forced Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, the prime minister, and Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, to re-enter talks on a unity government, neither will be inclined to observe a cease-fire as long as the cycle of violence between Palestinians and Israelis continues its climb back upward. Three months after the cease-fire in Lebanon, things are beginning to heat up again. And only an active U.S. engagement can stave it off.

When Mr. Bush assumed office nearly six years ago, he was determined not to repeat the mistake of his predecessor, President Bill Clinton. Mr. Clinton invested much of his two terms in forging a treaty between Israel and the Palestinians, only to see it unravel as he left office with the outbreak of the second intifada.

Instead, Mr. Bush and his advisers put Israel and the Palestinians on the back burner, choosing to pursue regime change in Iraq as a plank in what they hoped would be a domino effect of democracy spreading across the region.

Especially after 9/11, Mr. Bush agreed with his friend Ariel Sharon, then Israeli prime minister, that terror must never be rewarded with negotiations. So the other side was required to get into line before any carrots could be offered along with the sticks.

The logic of this moral high ground failed to consider that those who feel they have nothing to lose and nothing to gain resort to violence. We have seen this again and again, most recently this summer in Gaza and Lebanon. The world - and particularly the Arab world - looks to the U.S. to lead mediation efforts.

When it comes to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, there is no such thing as the status quo. Failing to move forward means sliding backward. From 1993 to 2000, the Oslo peace process was often derided as more "process" than "peace." And bloodshed spiked several times during that era.

Yet, in retrospect, it seems like a golden age, when hope for a better future prevented conditions from deteriorating in the way they have done since 2000.

Violence radicalizes both sides. During the Oslo process, polls showed that only 15 percent to 20 percent of Palestinians and 15 percent to 20 percent of Israeli Jews were extremist in rejecting the other side's legitimate claims. Most others occupied an increasingly moderate middle ground. Then, only months into the deadly second intifada, a majority of Palestinians began to support terror attacks against Israeli civilians. And mainstream Israelis no longer trusted that Palestinians would truly abide by a peace treaty, so they opted for physical separation via the building of a wall.

History has repeatedly shown that a White House actively engaged in peacemaking provides the greatest security to Israel and the Middle East. Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger's shuttle diplomacy in the mid-1970s led Israel from its most catastrophic war, the 1973 Yom Kippur War, to a peace treaty with Egypt by the end of that decade.

Back in October 2000, when Mr. Clinton managed to get Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to convene an emergency conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, it did not stop the intifada in its tracks. But it did prevent the uprising, then three weeks old, from spilling into a regional war.

But this July, the failure of the Bush administration to intervene in a three-week-old crisis in Gaza contributed to the widening of the conflict into a major war between Israel and Hezbollah forces in Lebanon. Fortunately, Syria and Iran stayed out of active fighting. But the threat to Israel was greater than at any time since 1973.

Now, with a humbled president and a new Congress, there is no reason to continue the modus operandi that drove the first three-quarters of Mr. Bush's time in office. The neoconservative, Iraq-first approach to the Middle East has been discredited. And Mr. Sharon, whom Mr. Bush trusted implicitly, lies in a coma.

Why wait another two years to begin afresh with Israel and the Palestinians? Surely it's time to get back to the table. Moderates on both sides are crying out for it.

Nomi Morris was Middle East bureau chief for Knight Ridder Newspapers from 1998 to 2001. Her e-mail is nomi@ojai.net.

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