For Mideast peace, think bigger

Regional stability involves more than the Israelis and Palestinians.

By

Four-and-a-half years after the invasion of Iraq, President Bush has launched another, equally high-stakes, gamble in the Middle East. This time, it is a gamble for peace, the one he started at the Nov. 27 conference in Annapolis, Md.

If it succeeds, it could do much to restore calm and hope to a region long cloaked in turmoil and dread. (It could also help salvage Mr. Bush's longer-term legacy.) But what if it fails?

Bush should understand that success in the post-Annapolis peacemaking effort requires a lot more commitment and vision than he and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have shown to date. Specifically, it requires much stronger direct involvement from the president himself and resurrection of the fine, old vision of an Israel at peace with all of its neighbors.

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Imagine that! Israel and its five Arab neighbors would no longer need to live in mutual fear. They could freely visit religious and tourist sites in one another's countries, do business together, and become part of a vibrant network of regional growth. Interlacing rail and road networks would embrace the whole Eastern Mediterranean landmass. Jerusalem would draw pilgrims of the three Abrahamic faiths – from all around the world – and become a center for multicultural interaction and innovation.

Sadly, neither Bush nor Ms. Rice gave any hint of this compelling vision at Annapolis. Instead of talking about the benefits of a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace – one in which Israel concludes peace agreements with Syria and Lebanon, as well as the Palestinians – the US leaders focused almost exclusively on the Palestinian-Israeli negotiation. That was a mistake, for these reasons:

1. Among Israelis, Palestinians, and other Arabs, there is still considerable disillusionment with the failure of past US-led peace efforts and distrust of this US administration, which largely ignored peacemaking for its first six years. Bush and Rice need to overcome these sentiments and re-energize the large peace constituencies still present, though latent, in the region. Defining a far-reaching vision of regionwide peace, describing its benefits at every opportunity, and – most important – working visibly and effectively toward it are essential for that.

2. Most Israelis say they crave recognition and normal relations with the Arab world. The Arab Peace Plan of 2002 offers them that – but only as and when Israel makes a withdrawal-based peace with all its neighbors, including Syria and Lebanon. Only in that context will the much-needed regional integration proceed.

3. If the Palestinian-Israeli peace is to work, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas needs support for it from a strong majority of Palestinians. If Syria is brought aboard the peace train, it can help him win that support. If it is not, he never will. Syria's participation is also essential if Lebanon is to be part of the final peace.

Did I mention this is a huge gamble? Of course it is! But it is one that can be won. Inside the region, there is disillusionment and distrust – but there is also war-weariness, a strong desire for normal life and livelihoods, and a recognition that all sides need to make concessions to win that.

On the Palestinian side, Hamas may look like a deal-busting force. But its leaders have said in the past they would let Mr. Abbas negotiate for all Palestinians, and so far, their opposition to Annapolis has been much more through large peaceful marches than (as in the 1990s) through violence. That is good news, and should be built on.

It is true, too, that the situations in Iraq and Iran strongly affect the countries along the Israeli-Arab seam. But that is a two-way street. A working, comprehensive Israeli-Arab peace will make dealing constructively with Iraq and Iran much easier in the future.

Meanwhile, in the world outside the Middle East, support for a final, complete Israeli-Arab peace is already very strong. All major world powers today have large stakes in the region. They need the peacemaking to succeed. If Bush's current peace gamble fails, that will seriously dent America's power and standing around the whole world.

At and since Annapolis, Abbas and Israeli premier Ehud Olmert have shown their willingness to reframe long-contentious issues in a way designed to build the constituencies for peace. Syria and other Arab states have shown their readiness for serious engagement.

And Bush? He took one good step at Annapolis by laying new stress on the need for a final-status peace, not simply further interim measures. But now, he needs to extend that vision to all of Israel's neighbors, not just the Palestinians, and to clearly articulate America's own compelling interest in this peace.

The stakes could not be higher. The world watches, and hopes.

Helena Cobban is a Friend in Washington with the Friends Committee on National Legislation. Her views are her own.

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