Middle East Movement

SO many ``opportunities'' have been missed in the Middle East over the years that one almost hesitates to mention what seem to be two more at least faint reasons for hope. The first is the more active role of the US in getting the relevant parties talking about how to settle - once and for all - the ``Palestinian question'' in and around Israel. The second is the effort by Saudi Arabia, Morocco, and Algeria to stop the fighting in Lebanon and get to the roots of that sorry country's 14-year civil war.

The two are very much related. Israel's continued presence in southern Lebanon as a defense against rocket attacks and saboteurs affects diplomatic efforts there, especially any withdrawal of Syrian troops from around Beirut. And the moral support for the intifadah by Muslim factions outside the occupied territories (including radicals in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley) adds to tensions in Israel and gives hard-liners there more ammunition to stall talks with Palestinians.

The Arab foreign ministers meeting in Taif, Saudi Arabia, are on the right track in proposing changes to Lebanon's confessional system of government under which specific top jobs are always held by a Muslim or Christian official. Under that system (in force since independence from France in 1943), Christians have dominated the parliament, government, military, and judiciary. Muslims have grown as a portion of the population to become the majority, however, and rightly want better representation.

Responsible Christian leaders in Lebanon recognize this, and they apparently are now more willing to relinquish some political power. That won't be easy to arrange, but it is inevitable if Lebanon is ever to be more than a sectarian battlefield again. Even more difficult - but just as inevitable for real peace to prevail - will be Syria's relinquishing military dominance in the country.

It's a difficult scenario, to be sure, solving fundamental problems that have gone on (and gotten worse) over decades.

The same is true with Israel and the Palestinians. Secretary of State James Baker has now gotten more actively involved in bringing the two sides together. The Bush administration (under fire for hesitancy in other foreign policy areas) needs to take a clear lead now, doing more than simply trying to push the parties together. For as Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin said recently, ``The only peace that was achieved [between Israel and Egypt], was achieved with a lot of United States activities and participation.''

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