A plan for Mideast peace

The United States has its own strong interest - over and above that of the parties directly concerned - in seeing a Holy Land blessed with peace. Given the depth of our country's engagement with the Middle East, this has always been the case. But as Washington scrambles to assemble a broad coalition against the hate-filled authors of the Sept. 11 attacks, it is even more urgently true today.

The bad news is that by giving prolonged and unquestioning support to governments in Israel that inflicted deliberate harm on Palestinians, successive American administrations helped quite unwittingly in the period before Sept. 11 to fuel the anti-Americanism of those around the world - Muslims and others - who were angered by those policies. That provided a fertile anti-American environment in which the Islamic extremists pursued their sacrilegious plans.

The good news is that it did not take President Bush and his advisers very long after the horror of Sept. 11 to understand the folly of the blank check they had given Israel. On Sept. 15, President Bush telephoned Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, and reportedly pleaded with him to withdraw troops he had sent deep into Palestinian areas in preceding days. (It took Mr. Sharon more than two days to comply.)

Also good news: that administration leaders seem to have learned from the evident failure of Israel's harsh, "attack them all" response to terrorism that a much smarter, more discriminating approach - enlisting a broad coalition of international allies - is the only route to long-term security in today's interdependent world.

And the best news yet, for a Middle East long plagued by the instability and despair that have always rippled out from the unresolved conflict in the Holy Land? The fact that a clear road map now exists that shows in near total detail what a stable peace there would look like.

That road map was sketched out by Palestinian and Israeli officials meeting in Taba, Egypt, in January. The near-agreement reached there envisioned substantial, but not total, Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza, and the establishment of a viable Palestinian state that would be at peace with Israel, and act as a bridge of cooperation between Israel and other Arab neighbors.

The main problem with the Taba talks was how very, very belatedly they were held. (If the timetable agreed to in Oslo in 1993 had been kept, the final peace agreement would have been in place in 1999.) By the time the negotiators started drawing lines on maps in Taba, and fleshing out approaches to the thorny issues of Jerusalem and the 3 million Palestinian refugees, both the Barak government in Israel and the Clinton administration in Washington were in their waning days.

When President Bush took the reins of power, his first instinct was to break with his predecessor's record of close engagement in Middle East peacemaking. "Let the two parties work it out between themselves," was the tenor of the new president's approach. Meanwhile, he gave a generous blank check of financial and political support to Sharon's new government in Israel - despite its short-sighted and vindictive escalations against the Palestinians.

Now, in the era of post-Sept. 11 diplomacy, our president, secretary of State, and lawmakers all need to pull out the record of the Taba talks, and examine it closely. It gives the Israelis a lot more than a strict application of UN resolutions might allow them. But it probably also gives the Palestinians the basis for a viable state.

A stable, final peace between Palestinians and Israelis? To think that this is now doable may seem extremely daring - but such diplomatic daring is exactly what the present crisis needs.

Both Israelis and Palestinians have been captive to hostility, violence, and fear for far too long. With firm and sensitive leadership from Washington, the vast majority in both communities can surely now be convinced that it is time to choose the wiser path of coexistence - and of peace.

A decade ago, during the Gulf War, President Bush senior was able to prevent Israeli-Palestinian hostility from exploding the American-led coalition against Iraq. After the war, he used the coalition's diplomatic muscle to bring a reluctant, earlier Israeli government to the peace table with the Palestinians.

Now, it is time to finish that peacemaking venture. If the unholy resentments of the Holy Land are allowed to fester any longer, we shall surely see these cycles of pain and violence continue to turn. And we, Americans - along with our friends in the Middle East - have our own strong interest in escaping such a fate.

Helena Cobban is a veteran journalist, and author of five books on international issues.

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