Moment of opportunity in Mideast

With US, Israel, and the Palestinians all navigating transitions, outlook improves for solving one of world's toughest problems.

The long struggle between Israelis and Palestinians, one of the most emotional and important geopolitical problems of the past 50 years, may now face something rare in its history: a period of hope.

That's because the main parties in the triangular peace process have all just experienced important transitions. The Palestinians, with the passing of Yasser Arafat, are moving toward a new generation of leadership - one with which the United States and Israel may find it easier to deal.

In the United States, the reelection of President Bush may well cause him to pause and consider his legacy, which would surely be burnished by a peace deal that eluded his predecessor. In Israel, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon might similarly have his eye on the judgment of the future. His planned withdrawal from Gaza already represents a crucial break with his hard-line past.

The question now is whether all involved will seize this opportunity, or whether, as has happened so often in the past, one or more will hang back, unready to run the risk of a deal which inevitably will contain difficult compromises.

"It's put up or shut up time: for the US, Israel, and the Palestinians, too," says M.J. Rosenberg, director of policy analysis for Israel Policy Forum in Washington.

In the aftermath of Mr. Arafat's interment, both Israeli and Palestinian officials seemed eager to project cautious optimism. In particular, most welcomed Mr. Bush's vow to spend political capital on a prospective Middle East peace deal. At his press conference with British Prime Minister Tony Blair on Friday, Bush said his vision of the region's future entailed "two democratic states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security."

On Saturday, Secretary of State Colin Powell said that Washington wants Israel to allow Palestinians in occupied territories to move freely for the elections that will choose Arafat's successor. Israeli officials conferred with Mr. Powell over the weekend, and the secretary indicated he wanted to meet with Palestinian counterparts soon.

History of failed attempts

Every president since Richard Nixon has tried to settle the historic dispute between the Israeli and Palestinian peoples over a relative sliver of the globe on the eastern end of the Mediterranean. Their peacemaking record, with a few exceptions, is dismal.

Yet after all these years, the US role still appears to be central. Only the world's superpower may be able to push the parties involved past their old bitter feelings. Palestinians still appear to look to the US to counterbalance what they see as Israel's preponderance of power.

"The United States must be the catalyst to move toward a just resolution of the conflict," says Judith Martin, professor of religious studies at the University of Dayton and executive director of the Ohio Valley Committee on US-Arab relations.

The main reason the peace process may move forward, of course, is that a figure the US had officially labeled an obstructionist has been removed from the scene.

Having declined to deal with Arafat in his last years, Washington would now appear an obstructionist itself if it continued this attitude while Palestinians scramble to pick new leaders.

A tinge of guilt may also factor in the Bush administration's attitude. Mahmoud Abbas, the newly named chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, is widely viewed as a pragmatic moderate. Last year, Mr. Abbas served a brief term as the first prime minister of the Palestinian Authority. Many US officials believe that in retrospect they should have done more at the time to help bolster Abbas' position.

Thus the US will want to look busier on the Middle East issue in the months ahead, said Flynt Leverett, former senior director for the Middle East Initiative at the National Security Council, at a Brookings Institution symposium last week.

Palestinian elections will "require a good deal of international support coordination with Israel, and I think the United States is likely to be playing a very important role in helping that process unfold," said Mr. Leverett, now a visiting fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy.

The Palestinian leadership is likely to be focused on the question of the legitimacy of its new leaders. With Arafat, the symbol of Palestinian nationalism for a generation, gone, new leaders may have little power unless they are picked by a process that Palestinians believe genuinely reflects their popular will.

Israel, for its part, has seen its short-term prospects suddenly become more complicated. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has already pushed through a Gaza pullout plan over the objections of his own conservative constituency. But he envisioned this as a unilateral move. Will Israel now attempt to coordinate its pullout with new Palestinian Authority partners?

If it wants, the US might even have leverage to push Mr. Sharon toward further gestures, such as a release of Palestinian prisoners, or even a redeployment of Israeli forces in the West Bank.

The Sharon-US connection

After a lifetime in Israeli politics, Sharon himself may be looking towards his legacy - if not elections, which could occur in Israel in late 2005 or 2006.

"My experience with Ariel Sharon is that when he sees that the president of the United States is serious about something, he will adjust his plan to ensure that there is no daylight between the United States and Israel," said Martin Indyk, former US ambassador to Israel, at the Brookings symposium.

It remains to be seen how far the US is willing to go to push all involved back toward the existing road map for peace. In any case, US involvement is probably necessary, but not sufficient, for progress.

"The Palestine-Israel conflict is a very small boat, and it's going to float or sink depending on what everybody does," said Amjad Atallah, a former Palestinian Authority negotiator, at Brookings.

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