Bush's Leap Over Mideast Doubt

SOMETIMES, great inspiration comes in small packages. Like newborn babies. Or E = mc2 Or the Mona Lisa. Or how about these 12 simple words: ``The time has come to put an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict''? This statement, spoken with commitment by an American president at the height of his powers,can reshape the lives of the 100 million people living in the shadow of the conflict. Blessedly absent from the speech George Bush made March 6 before Congress was any hint of the patronizing attitude that the peoples of the region might not be ``ready'' or ``ripe'' for peace.

The president's approach was appropriately broad. He recognized that building peace between Arabs and Israelis must not be just a one-track process of inter-state diplomacy. His approach envisioned equivalent efforts in arms control and economic development as well.

This broad vision of Middle East peace-building corresponds closely with the understanding that some key individuals in the region - Arabs and Israelis - have come to share. These men and women, some of them close to governments, some regrettably more distant, realize that lasting peace is not made by governments signing pieces of paper. Lasting peace must involve a growing sense of well-being, self-confidence, and purpose.

It is by empowering precisely these Arab and Israeli individuals that Bush can best hope to anchor his efforts in their societies. (A mention of democratization could also have been helpful.) Bush made clear, too, that this empowerment need not exist merely on the moral plane: He put Israel's hard-line Likud government on notice that he would be re-establishing the linkage that once existed between Israel's performance on the peace process and the $3 billion American taxpayers give to Israel each year.

The president restated that US policy remained based on the 24-year-old view that Israel and the Arabs should trade land for peace. And he stressed that progress must be made between the Palestinians and Israel, as well as between the Arab states and Israel. Neither of those points is welcome to the present Israel government.

In total, the president seemed determined to use his current immense popularity and influence to work for Arab-Israeli peace - even if that means playing political hard-ball with Israel's Likud Bloc government. This strategy stands a good chance of bringing success. Let's face it, the Reagan-era policy of de-linking aid from Israel's performance on the peace process succeeded only in rewarding Israeli intransigence.

But if Bush is prepared to use carrot and a threat of stick to bring Israel to negotiations, will he find any Arabs there to talk to? The signs are good. Egypt, of course, has no problem talking with Israel. Syria, a member in good standing of the contain-Iraq coalition, has long proclaimed its readiness to deal with Israel if land-for-peace is really on the table. Lebanon can come if Syria is there. Jordan's King Hussein seems eager to rehabilitate himself with the West - and has never had a problem de aling with Israelis. And Saudi Arabia owes us for its very survival these days.

And the Palestinians? Yes, there is a real problem with Palestinian representation. It is hard to forgive Yasser Arafat for his support of Saddam Hussein. But he remains very popular with the key Palestinian constituency in the occupied areas.

Nevertheless, President Bush was right to insist that ``legitimate Palestinian political rights'' must be assured.'' The Palestinians have suffered for long enough. They cannot now be punished as a group for the grave wrongdoings of one man.

One way to deal with the problem of Palestinian representation might be for the world community to mandate and supervise speedy elections in the occupied territories for a Palestinian negotiating team. Another would be to work with Jordan to produce a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation. Either way, Yasser Arafat would still have influence over negotiators. But we would not be placing him on center stage, and we would be showing Palestinians everywhere that their legitimate interests would be served.

None of the issues involved in Arab-Israeli peacemaking will be simple. But, as with the Palestinian issue, creative ideas for solutions are emerging - many of them from the region itself.

Egypt's President Sadat once said that the first hurdle to cross is often our own psychological limitations. For too long, American officials have thought that the Arab-Israeli conflict was too hard to resolve. Bush has leaped over that hurdle of doubt.

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