Push hard for Mideast peace

President George W. Bush, crafter of peace in the Holy Land? It could still happen. Most Israelis and Palestinians are reeling from the terrible casualties both communities have suffered in recent months. Now, with wise leadership from Washington, presidential envoy Anthony Zinni can urge these two beleaguered peoples to draw back from the abyss of destruction, whose horrors they have glimpsed, and to work rapidly toward a viable and hope-filled peace.

Skilled guidance from Washington is key to this, however. Remember: We are speaking about two deeply traumatized peoples in the Holy Land. We cannot expect either of their current leaders to come out, right now, with visionary plans for peaceful coexistence.

Instead, in today's world, it has to be Washington that uses its unparalleled influence to take each by a caring hand, and gently but firmly help both to disengage - from the violence, and from the intimate and destructive involvement in each other's lives that causes this violence to continue.

Two peoples live in the Holy Land, between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River. Few members of either nation want to build a Belgium-style binational state. Certainly, almost none of Israel's 5 million Jewish citizens wants to see Israeli citizenship offered to the 3.5 million Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza. But these Palestinians, and the 3 million Palestinian refugees elsewhere, need to be able to exercise their political rights, and to experience a sense of national belonging - somewhere. Where they want to do it is in an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, two Palestinian areas that came under Israeli military occupation in 1967.

The prospects for a viable two-state solution became much better after Saudi Arabia's powerful Crown Prince Abdullah recently expressed his country's strong support for it.

Israel has no legitimate claim to the West Bank and Gaza. It entered them in 1967 in the course of a war, and it has stayed there ever since. As anyone who has lived under foreign military occupation knows, 35 years is a long time to suffer its indignities. But in addition to controlling crucial areas of Palestinian life, successive Israeli governments have also worked hard to move members of their own Jewish-Israeli population into the occupied areas, a move that has further fueled Palestinian anger. Even after signing the interim Oslo Accords in 1993, Israel continued the settlement drive. Since 1993, the number of settlers has risen from 270,000 to 360,000.

Back in 1949, seeing the devastation Nazi policies had caused in Eastern Europe, the nations of the world all agreed that any government that, for whatever reason, finds its forces occupying someone else's land should not move its own nationals onto that land. That is part of the Fourth Geneva Convention. Israel has been breaking it since 1967.

THE EXISTENCE of Israeli settlements makes it harder for Israel to disengage from the West Bank and Gaza. But disengage - in good if not full measure - it must. The Palestinians must be allowed the state they seek. And in return, they must agree to full demilitarization, and a monitored end to all hostilities against Israel.

Can President Bush imagine the immense benefits that such a peace would bring - to Israelis and Americans, as well as Palestinians?

I'm sure some advisers are urging him not to go too far, too fast. Some people argue that when President Bill Clinton reached for the "brass ring" of a final peace accord, he raised unrealizable expectations and thus contributed to the current violence.

Those arguments are wrong. They are based on an ideologically driven misreading of the "lessons" of the Clinton era. If Clinton's Mideast diplomacy did err, it was not by reaching - in the very last months of his presidency - for a final peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians. It was, rather, by leaving that effort far too late, and by focusing throughout all his preceding years only on incremental advances.

People who openly or covertly support Israel's settlement drive have always tried to divert Washington from pushing for a final-status agreement for the occupied territories. For 35 years, these ideologues have successfully kept the occupied territories in a juridical limbo that has allowed the settlement drive to continue. Their success has made reaching a viable final peace harder - but not totally impossible.

If President Bush seeks to avoid the "errors" of his predecessor's diplomacy, he should state clearly that he is working for speedy conclusion of a final peace agreement.

It is far too late for further "interim" measures to do any lasting good. The people of the Holy Land desperately need peace, and they need hope. Most of all, now, they need wise leadership from Washington.

• Helena Cobban is a veteran journalist and author of five books on international issues.

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