At a Washington breakfast meeting 30 years ago, I asked Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, "After your success in getting Israeli and Arab forces on both Egyptian and Syrian fronts [in the 1973 war] to put down their guns and disengage, why isn't more being done to resolve the main Israeli-Palestinian conflict?"
Mr. Kissinger replied that in tough negotiations, easier issues get tackled first; the tough ones last. That approach may have helped Israel broker peace deals with Egypt in 1979, and with Jordan in 1994. But failure to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has meant keeping intact the chief catalyst for turmoil in the Middle East – and, arguably, the world.
Today, war-weary Lebanon's latest crisis, following the recent murder of Christian leader and cabinet minister Pierre Gemayel, is just one more illustration of why it's better to put settlement of this decades-long conflict first. That's something British Prime Minister Tony Blair has been urging a reluctant President Bush to do.
What does the Israeli-Palestinian fault line have to do with Lebanon's present woes? Just about everything. History shows that Lebanon was one of the first victims of the 1948-49 Arab-Israeli war following Israel's birth. Lebanon, a small country of less than 5 million people had to accept a massive influx of displaced Palestinians. Today they form a largely ghettoized refugee community of nearly half a million inside Lebanon. Unlike the better-integrated Palestinians in Syria and Jordan, the Lebanese refugees are deprived of voting and job rights, but they all depend greatly on international charity.
In 1970-71, Jordan's King Hussein drove Yasser Arafat's heavily armed Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) militias out of Jordan – a state, along with Egypt and Syria, that lost much territory to Israel in the 1948-49 and 1967 wars. So Arafat's forces moved into Lebanon, a migration that's long troubled the reluctant host country. They implanted themselves as a para-state, escaped control by the Beirut government, and again deployed against Israel, this time from Lebanon's southern borders.
South Lebanon's underprivileged Shiite Muslims became de facto human shields against Israel's retaliatory incursions. After Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon, revolutionary Iran and Syria teamed up to organize them into the fiercely militant and anti-Israel Hizbullah organization.
Today, Hizbullah challenges Lebanon's ruling Christian, Sunni Muslim, and anti-Syrian coalition, to which murdered Gemayel belonged, in a bid to win absolute power for the 30 percent Shiite minority.
If Hizbullah and its Iranian and Syrian sponsors prevail, Israel's and Lebanon's non-Shiite and Christian sects – officially, there are 17 different ones – could justifiably fear that Lebanon would again be directly drawn into conflict, as a militant base of the sort Arafat temporarily created in pre-1970 Jordan.
Looking back on the anticolonial wars that I covered in North Africa, especially the 1954-62 Algerian revolution, these, too, related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Israel's then-ruling Labor Party tentatively welcomed Algeria's independence movement. Later, perceiving how the Algerians helped the PLO with guerrilla training and propaganda support, Jerusalem turned against it. Israeli agents covertly backed diehard French settlers of the Secret Army Organization, opposing French President Charles de Gaulle's acquiescence – backed by the United States – in Algeria's free choice for final independence, expressed in a victorious 1962 referendum. This heritage still deeply affects French and European relations with their Muslim populations, and also France's often testy relations with Israel.
American action, or lack of it, always affects critical Middle East issues. When it focused properly, the US made progress, as when the brilliant black American diplomat Ralph Bunche successfully brokered the UN Arab armistice accords with Israel in 1949. A hands-on Truman administration favored Mr. Bunche's action. During the 1956 Suez war, President Eisenhower successfully pressured Britain, France, and Israel to halt their invasion of Egypt. This probably avoided a wider Western conflict with the Soviet Union, which supported Egypt's President Gamal Abdel Nasser.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, an expert Kremlinologist, has undoubtedly been a fast learner about the Middle East. But Mr. Bush and his neoconservative advisers have restrained the kind of active Mideast shuttle diplomacy other secretaries effectively used in the past. Ms. Rice's current efforts to strengthen a shaky Palestinian-Israeli truce in Gaza indicates this may be changing.
Both sides should be pushed to revive old deals that almost succeeded. Israel and the US should relax the extreme economic pressure on the Palestinians, which aims to extract from them recognition of Israel and renunciation of terrorism. The Palestinians should work harder to curb the violent resistance and restrain terrorism. Israel should be encouraged to eliminate the separation wall in the West Bank and drop excessive road blocks and other harassment.
This is a conflict that demands the full force of intelligent diplomacy right now. A comprehensive and lasting peace is in everyone's interest.
• John K. Cooley, a former Monitor correspondent, covered the Middle East for more than 40 years. He is the author of "Green March, Black September: The Story of the Palestinian Arabs."