CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA. — The carnage in Lebanon, Israel, and Gaza continues. Civilians in all three areas have suffered horrendous, unacceptable casualties. Israel remains the dominant military power in the region: It is in no danger of being vanquished, and it clearly remains capable of inflicting greater damage on the civilian communities beyond its borders. But history has shown us once again that, even with all the firepower at its disposal, Israel is incapable of imposing its will by force on the Lebanese and Palestinian people who are – and will always be – its neighbors.
Israel's government and people need to find a way other than coercive military force to build a relationship that is sustainable over the long term with these neighbors and thus to enjoy at last the sense of security that they (and all the peoples of the region) so deeply crave. And Americans, who have a long and close relationship with Israel and aspire to have good relations with the Lebanese and Palestinians, should understand that the region's most urgent needs are to win a complete and fully monitored cease-fire between Israel and Lebanon (and, if possible, between Israel and the militants in Gaza), and to link that cease-fire to an explicit plan to have the United Nations convene an authoritative peace conference within, say, two weeks that aims to find a speedy resolution to all the unresolved strands of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Why work for a comprehensive peace agreement now, rather than postpone this search once again? Because all the remaining strands of the Arab-Israeli conflict are closely connected, and none of them can be resolved without the others. Because the casualty rates in Palestinian Gaza have been and remain shockingly high. And because the challenges the world faces concerning Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan are now so serious that the Arab-Israeli tinderbox cannot be left to smolder.
Finding a final, comprehensive peace between Israel and all its neighbors may look ambitious, but it is certainly quite doable. The past 39 years of peace diplomacy have shown what the basic outline of a sustainable "final outcome" will look like. It will roughly resemble what the UN Security Council envisaged in 1967 when it called on Israel to withdraw from territories it brought under military occupation that year, and on the Arab parties to accord full recognition and peace to Israel.
This outcome is close to the peace plans discussed intensively between Israeli and Arab negotiators in 2000, and to the one the Arab states all endorsed in March 2002. In the recent past (though before the present tensions), clear majorities of citizens in Israel and neighboring Arab communities all expressed support for such an outcome.
This will certainly require visionary and determined leadership from the international community. The US, which has given Israel much support during its assault on Lebanon, is poorly placed to lead this process, but fortunately, the UN can do so. President Bush will still, however, have a vital role to play. He has said he does not want to return to the "status quo ante," and that he wants to address the "root causes" of the current conflict. I agree with these positions. But where Mr. Bush identifies the main root cause as that nebulous, poorly defined force, "international terrorism," I see it as the failure to finish resolving the Arab-Israeli dispute.
One historical note: Almost exactly 50 years ago, Britain and France – both of which still had significant political influence over the Middle East – allied themselves with an aggressive Israeli military assault (against Egypt) aimed at transforming the regional balance in Israel's favor. On that occasion, Israel and its allies "won" the war on the ground, but they could not win the "transformational" political goal that they sought. In the stalemate that followed, the other global powers, primarily the US, stepped in and brokered an arrangement involving a complete Israeli withdrawal from the lands they occupied and the dispatch of UN peacekeepers. Because of the political miscalculation Britain and France had made in backing Israel's assault, they lost nearly all their political clout in the region. Indeed, those events marked the beginning of Washington's dominance there.
Now, Washington's decision to give strong backing to Israel's assault against Lebanon looks eerily like a replay of the error that the British and French governments made in 1956. Today, only the UN Security Council can play the same role – stressing fairness, deescalation, and nonviolent problem-solving – that the US played in 1956. And only the Security Council can say to all the peoples of the Arab-Israeli region that their cries of pain have been heard and that the world community promises them that their nations can all have a safe and hopeful future based on a regionwide peace. Today, surely, that goal looks more worth aiming at and more urgent than ever before.
• Helena Cobban is writing a book on violence and its legacies.