Middle East hot spots merging

The recent trips by President Bush and Secretary Rice signal a US push for a holistic, regional solution.

After sitting down with President Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Jordan Thursday to seek solutions to Iraq's agony, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice waded into the other conflict spreading bitterness throughout the region.

Hoping to keep the Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire momentum alive, Ms. Rice went to the West Bank and Jerusalem Thursday to nudge the two sides toward concerted peacemaking.

The two events underscore the gradually eroding boundaries between Middle East flash points – from Baghdad to Beirut to Gaza. Indeed, the Bush administration's visits come amid growing discussion about the need to find holistic solutions.

A growing number of observers – most notably British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Jordan's King Abdullah – have advocated that solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would boost stability. But others say the rise of radical Islam, Iran's push to become a nuclear and regional power, and the US initiative to promote democracy have created a complex web of forces that contribute to conflicts around the Middle East.

"Progress between Israel and Palestinians is good for efforts to deal with other conflicts in the Middle East. Undoubtedly they're all interlocked," says Yossi Alpher, the coeditor of the online Middle East journal Bitterlemons.org.

"But I'm very wary of arguments which we increasingly hear, that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the key to everything. Nothing could be further from the truth. There are very extensive linkages that you didn't have in the past, but it goes both ways."

President Bush said Thursday the US will speed a turnover of security responsibility to Iraqi forces but assured Mr. Maliki that Washington is not looking for a "graceful exit" from a war well into its fourth year. "One of his frustrations with me is that he believes that we've been slow about giving him the tools necessary to protect the Iraqi people," Bush said. "He doesn't have the capacity to respond. So we want to accelerate that capacity."

The Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire reached Sunday calmed five months of daily violence in Gaza that has left 375 Palestinians dead and Israel on the verge of ordering an all-out invasion to stop cross-border rocket attacks.

Optimism about a turning point was boosted a day later, when Prime Minister Ehud Olmert delivered a conciliatory speech in which he offered Palestinians the possibility of a sovereign, contiguous state.

"I agree that the speech of Prime Minister Olmert was a very positive development," said Rice at the end of her visit with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. "Hopefully we can take this moment to accelerate our efforts."

The prospect of talks between Israelis and the Palestinians would have positive reverberations throughout the region, strengthening Western-allied Arab states at the expense of militant forces, say observers. It could also help the US assemble a broader coalition to isolate Iran in its quest for nuclear power.

In September, Philip Zelikow, a senior adviser to Rice, called the Israeli-Palestinian problem "the essential glue that binds a lot of these problems together."

Mohammed Dejani, a political science professor at Al Quds University, described the conflict as a "historic issue" in the Arab world. "A lot of the anger and resentment that's taking place regarding the policies of the US has been because of its stand on this issue," he says. "All radical regimes and movements are using this issue because among the masses in the Arab world there is a lot of sympathy regarding the suffering of the Palestinians."

But many argue that a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict wouldn't necessarily become a tipping point for ending the sectarian strife in Iraq and Lebanon.

Hizbullah called for mass protests in Beirut Saturday in an effort to bring down Lebanon's Western-backed government. Hizbullah leader Shiekh Hassan Nasrallah said the government had failed and peaceful protests should force it to resign.

Experts have also pointed out how the fate of the fragile cease-fire in Gaza is dependent to a large extent on the interests of Syria and Iran, which can influence political and military policy in the Palestinian territories through their patronage of Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

During the press conference with Rice, President Abbas said that talks with Hamas on forming a unity government had reached an impasse. A power-sharing government between Hamas, which the US deems a terrorist organization, and Abbas's rival Fatah Party is seen as a precondition to progress in negotiations.

"The hardening of the Hamas position is due to the external factor," says a Palestinian analyst who requested anonymity, referring to the influence of Iran and Syria. "We have people from the outside dictating what's going on inside."

The regional linkages are increasingly being recognized in Israel, which in the past has preferred bilateral negotiations as the only means to solving the conflicts with its neighbors. In his speech this week, Olmert said he planned to reach out to moderate Arab states to help advance the peace process and even praised a four-year-old Saudi Arabian peace plan.

A group of dovish Israeli ex-military officers this week published a policy paper suggesting the opening of a strategic dialogue with the Arab moderates.

"We think that we have to cooperate with moderate Arab countries to reach peace with Syria, Lebanon, and the Palestinian," says Shaul Givoli, a spokesman for the Council on Peace and Security. "More and more people understand that the spread of fundamentalist Islam backed by nuclear weapons is a threat to all of the region. Not Qassams on Sderot."

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