No time to waste in the Holy Land

The peace process needs you, Mr. President

Take some deep breaths, President Bush: The time to delineate and start working aggressively for a final peace agreement in the Holy Land is now. That's why Secretary of State Colin Powell is there in the thick of things.

For the first 14 months of your presidency, you tried hard to avoid being drawn into the complexities of Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking. But by April 4, the conflict had escalated so gravely, and was threatening vital American interests so ominously, that you finally saw you had to jump in.

That was the right decision. But now (and here's where the deep breaths might be needed) much more must be done – and with wisdom, visionary imagination, and speed. The sharpness of the conflict in the Holy Land, and the centrality of the conflict for the global balance of power, means that now that you've entered the Israeli-Palestinian fray, there will be no easy exit.

Evidently you have learned that neither Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon nor Palestinian President Yasser Arafat is easy to deal with. Indeed, since both were elected, and both are riding sky high with their publics, it's clear it's not just those two men who are difficult, but also the broader relationship between their peoples that is in a tight, destructive tangle.

Remember that both peoples are acting from a massive sense of traumatization and insecurity. They may be voicing hard-line, hate-filled rhetoric, but at the same time, deep within themselves, the vast majority of Palestinians and Israelis understand that for their own survival they need to negotiate, compromise, and above all find a way to coexist. Your role is to empower those feelings and those constituencies – but you won't achieve that by taking personalized potshots at leaders on either side. If you strengthen the pro-peace constituency, the issue of the leaders will solve itself later. At this point, any Israeli or Palestinian leader who signs on to a fair American peace plan should be warmly welcomed aboard. And any who does not should be held firmly to account. American political support and military and financial aid should be withheld from any party that stays outside the process of making a fair peace.

You do need to think about the strange position the United States occupies, presenting itself as the supreme arbiter on Palestinian-Israeli peace issues while being aligned so closely with an Israeli government that seems committed to keeping the level of escalation high. Those are American-donated helicopters firing into the refugee camps, and everyone knows it. To let the peace process work, you will need either to share the burden of diplomacy with another less partisan partner or act decisively to call the Israeli recipients of US aid to account.

What might a fair peace plan look like? Don't deride the progress made at the end of President Clinton's watch. It came at a politically inopportune moment, to be sure: Both Mr. Clinton and Israel's then-prime minister, Ehud Barak, were near the end of their terms. But at the Camp David talks in July 2000, and at later talks at Taba, Egypt, right through January 2001, huge progress was made in drawing the lines of a final peace.

Avoid the tragic delay Clinton indulged in and pick up on the Taba peace plan now. If you do that, you could see real progress before the end of the year. You, unlike the dawdling Clinton, still have the time and political prestige to put in place a comprehensive peace.

The Taba negotiations were held while the ground conflict raged. But that did not prevent both sides from making significant compromises. The Palestinians indicated a readiness to allow for "border adjustments" that would let Israel keep control of areas hosting a large proportion of Jewish settlers. The Israelis showed themselves willing to withdraw control, over time, from all the rest of the West Bank, allowing the Palestinians a viable territorial base for their state and access to their areas of Jerusalem. (For the record, it was the Israelis who walked out of those talks.)

True, the situation on the ground has gotten much worse since January 2001. Right now, it's impossible to think that Israeli and Palestinian officials might sit together to negotiate so amicably. The impetus has to come from somewhere else. President Bush, that means primarily you. But at least Taba gave you something concrete to work with. It showed that there is a pathway to peace.

I know you're getting lots of contradictory advice. I know you are, and will continue to be, a good friend of Israel. But remember the saying, "Friends don't let friends drive drunk." That's especially true when the friends in question seem intoxicated with raw military power and are driving American-supplied tanks and helicopters destructively through other people's civilian-packed neighborhoods.

A calming, firm hand on the wheel from Washington: That's what the world needs now. With that kind of leadership, the dynamics of the conflict can be turned around within months, or even weeks. But if you shy away from this challenge, the consequences – for the peoples of the Holy Land, for global stability, and for your administration's ability to meet its own important goals – will be disastrous. As you said, "Enough is enough."

• Helena Cobban is the author of five books on international issues.

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