WASHINGTON — Vice President Cheney seems to have failed in his hurried mission of instructing Middle Eastern leaders on the need for military action to bring down Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. But the trip succeeded admirably in teaching him five basic lessons about the region today:
The Israel-Palestine conflict is central to the politics of Arab states. Their leaders are convinced that the course and outcome of the struggle could well determine their futures.
A cease-fire in the conflict is meaningless unless there is a political context of hope. Palestinians are fighting for freedom from occupation; Israelis are retaliating to achieve security. At present, neither freedom nor security is in sight.
The peace plan of Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah offers the best hope for the peace and security that normal people, not the ideologues, earnestly desire. This plan calls for a return to 1967 Israeli borders in exchange for fully normalized relations with all Arab states, closing most Jewish settlements, and dropping the right of all pre-1948 refugees to return to their homes in Israel.
The bitterness of prolonged violence and the absence of hope for peace push extremists on both sides to the fore, making it impossible to believe the two parties can come together in a spirit of conciliation and compromise.
Both Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat will respond to US pressure when it is firmly applied and when their situations are desperate. Evidence: first, Mr. Sharon's agreement to pull his troops out of reoccupied Palestinian areas and easing of sanctions on Mr. Arafat, and, second, Arafat's sincere if futile call for an end to violence.
This last lesson is the most basic one, for it rests on earlier teachings from the history of the conflict as well as on current realities. In the past, Israel has made concessions to its Arab enemies only when pressed by Washington or by those enemies. It withdrew forces from the Sinai Peninsula on three occasions when Presidents Eisenhower, Nixon, and Carter demanded it.
Israel ended an incursion into Lebanon when Carter insisted, and withdrew completely under pressure from Hizbullah. It stopped (temporarily) settlement activity when the first President Bush withheld housing loan money. The Oslo accords of 1993 which set a framework for talks between Israel and the Palestinians were the result of years of fighting in the first intifada.
Now the Israeli economy has tanked, registering negative growth after the destruction of tourism and investment by the second intifada, plus the collapse of the Nasdaq in the US, which hit Israel's technology sector.
On top of this fiscal/political disaster, the extraordinary expenses of fighting Palestinians will be a heavy burden. Who will pay it? Don't be surprised if Israel sends Washington a request soon for supplemental aid.
Arafat's Palestinian Authority is even more vulnerable after months of intifada destruction and years of mismanagement and corruption. He is desperate for a resolution to the conflict, but will not settle for terms such as those at the last Camp David talks, in 2000 that do not give him a viable state.
This is, therefore, the moment for the careful application of pressure by Washington for a lasting settlement, along the lines of the Abdullah plan.
America should not wait for an elusive ceasefire, but instead assemble a broad coalition of allies from Europe and the Middle East to share in the labor of pushing the combatants toward the only feasible end to the conflict.
The coalition could also provide peacekeeping forces to separate the parties. Neither the Israeli nor the Palestinian rulers can resist such pressure, and most of their constituents will gratefully accept it.
It is time for the Bush administration to apply the lessons Mr. Cheney brought home from his journey.
Henry Precht is a retired Foreign Service officer with experience in the Middle East since 1964.