US must again be a partner for Mideast peace

By CALME Luminary Geoffrey H. Lewis
Originally Published in the Boston Globe, January 12, 2007

A NEW YEAR is always a good time to consider new possibilities. Nowhere is this more true than in the Middle East, particularly with respect to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Now is the time to rebuild, in earnest, the peace process between the Israelis and Palestinians.

It has been almost six years since significant negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians took place, at Taba. The United States must spearhead the effort to revive negotiations, proving that it can be a partner for peace in the Middle East.

Events over the last few weeks suggest that the time for a renewal of negotiations is at hand.

The recent meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was, by all accounts, meaningful and suggests the possibility of a new relationship between the two leaders. Subsequent statements wherein Abbas proposed holding “backdoor” negotiations with Israel and Olmert maintained that Israel is open to any “whispers of peace” from its neighbors reflect a desire to maintain the momentum.

Our European allies appear ready to assist. British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s recent visit to the region testifies to the seriousness of his commitment to devote his last year as Britain’s leader to the resumption of negotiations and an effort to reach an agreement between the parties. Other European allies have expressed their eagerness to help as well.

Events elsewhere in the region also suggest positive change is afoot. Recent statements from Syria suggest, according to spokespeople from Israeli security and the foreign ministry, a potential desire to enter into discussions. That desire should be tested to confirm whether it is real and to ensure that an opportunity, no matter how remote, is not missed.

Saudi Arabia has been increasingly vocal about renewing its initiative of 2002 wherein it called for full recognition and relations with Israel on the basis of a variety of conditions which, while not acceptable to Israel in their entirety, may provide the basis for further discussion. Olmert himself, in a recent, highly touted speech, acknowledged this. Ongoing meetings by President Mubarak of Egypt and King Abdullah of Jordan with Israeli and Palestinian leaders demonstrate their willingness to help move the process forward. And the results of a recent poll jointly conducted by the Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah indicate a “. . . strong preference in both publics for the comprehensive settlement option with 58 percent of the Israelis and 81 percent of the Palestinians supporting this track. ”

Recently, members of the Israel Policy Forum, an organization of mainstream Jewish leadership that advocates for a two-state solution and active American leadership in advancing the peace process, met separately with the ambassadors from Egypt, Jordan, Qatar, Syria, and Saudi Arabia. The participants concluded that significant players in the Arab world agree that a two-state solution must be energetically pursued and that the United States must play a leading role in pursuit of that goal.

A resumption of negotiations will not come easily. Indeed, Qassam rockets are regularly fired from Gaza in violation of the cease-fire declared by Israel and the Palestinians in Gaza last month. Iran’s presence in the region is truly foreboding. Reports of its intention to assist Hamas in preparing for a war against Israel is yet more evidence (if one needed such) of its destructive nature. All of this underscores the need for the United States, Israel, and others to strengthen Abbas and other Palestinian moderates. Responsible nations in the region and elsewhere should not allow extremist elements to undermine positive movement toward peace.

Notwithstanding the negatives noted above, there exists now a confluence of factors which provides an opportunity for the United States to move the process forward. The United States should become a partner. It should marshall its resources, seek the help and contributions of other nations, and begin to engage in a meaningful way in the process of bringing the parties back to the negotiating table.

US engagement in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process should intensify. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s upcoming visit to the region is a welcome first step. A good second step would be adherence to the Iraq Study Group’s recommendation that there be a renewed ” commitment by the US to a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace.” Other steps should follow.

If President Bush wants a legacy other than Iraq, now is the time for him to begin creating the momentum for such. It is clear he will receive much-needed assistance from Europe, parts of the Arab world, and the parties themselves. The United States will benefit from the perception that it is playing a productive role in the region. The United States must avail itself of the opportunity and be the leader and partner Americans and others expect it to be.

Geoffrey H. Lewis, a Boston attorney, is a member of the executive committee of the Israel Policy Forum. 

Explore posts in the same categories: CALME Luminaries, Israel, Middle East, Middle East Peace, Palestinians, Two State Solution, U.S. Role

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