Listen to the allies on Mideast

As Israeli-Palestinian violence flares anew, the Bush administration finds that few in the world community, and none of its important allies, support its Middle East policies.

Still, these policies could be rectified by listening to some thoughtful friends and neighbors. These observers object to the insistence of President Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that Yasser Arafat be removed as Palestinian leader, and that top priority be given to Israeli security over all else.

President Bush faces important US congressional elections in the fall, and to observers in Europe and the Middle East, his policy seems to be focused on pleasing Prime Minister Sharon and his powerful political supporters in the United States.

In fact, three of the four members of the Mideast diplomatic "quartet" – the UN, the European Union, and Russia – rejected the ideas of the fourth member, the United States, at a meeting of the group in New York on July 16.

The "trio," including UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, made this clear to Secretary of State Colin Powell. Longtime observers of Middle East conflict and peace efforts, including many Israelis, agree with the UN, the Europeans, and the Russians.

At the same time, these friends generally support the views of the three key Arab governments, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan, representing the 23-nation Arab League. The Arabs perceive the need to override the Sharon-Bush requirements on Mr. Arafat's succession and Israeli (but not Palestinian) security, and to begin step-by-step peace moves now.

Mr. Annan has affirmed that "the UN still recognizes Chairman Arafat and will continue to deal with him until the Palestinians [who are to vote for new leaders and legislators in January] decide otherwise." Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov and the foreign minister of Denmark, which now chairs the EU, agreed.

"The issue," summed up Jordanian Foreign Minister Marwan Moasher, "is not the person of Mr. Arafat, but the Israeli occupation."

Washington and its allies should concentrate on some positive ideas, which neither Israel nor the Palestinians should reject out of hand. Some of these have been proposed by one of Europe's most thoughtful spokesmen, German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer.

Step One: Arafat appoints a prime minister, a new post in his Palestinian Authority (PA).

This new man or woman would manage the promised reforms of the authority, clamping down on corruption, streamlining the creaking and battered rival Palestinian security services, and strictly separating executive, legislative, and judicial powers. This has been set forth in the PA's new basic law, approved by its legislature, and signed by Arafat.

In this process, Arafat might accept a more symbolic leadership status, without harming the man for whom most Palestinians have professed personal loyalty since the 1960s.

Step Two: The long promised (and US-endorsed) Palestinian state is proclaimed, with international approval, probably at an international conference. The core issues between it and the Israeli state should immediately be tackled by the best and brightest negotiators on both sides.

Step Three: By 2005, the bare bones of such a state are fleshed out. The final status of the Palestinian state, its borders, and its sovereign attributes, as well as its relations with Israel and other neighbors, are formalized in an Israel-Palestinian peace treaty.

Israel signed such treaties with Egypt in 1979 and with Jordan in 1994.

Such a pact would finally settle such core issues as the status of Jerusalem, refugees, and borders.

To bring all this about, Nabil Shaath, Arafat's minister of international cooperation and one of his most astute supporters, offers a good proposal: Transform the present "quartet" into a kind of permanent "contact group," like that created by NATO and the United Nations for Bosnia during the Yugoslav conflicts and peace settlements of the 1990s.

Mr. Shaath's idea could be amplified. Why not expand the quartet into a sextet – including Israel and an Arab-Palestinian group? Syria, now neglected by Washington, would be included. International issues like the Arab-Israeli conflict cannot be settled bilaterally, but only in a truly international forum.

• John K. Cooley, an author and former Monitor correspondent, has been reporting on the Middle East and North Africa since the late 1950s.

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