Mideast awaits new leaders, direction in 2009

Former President Jimmy Carter urged new focus on Israeli-Palestinian peace last week. But other accords may be more feasible.

Mohamed Azakir/Reuters
Talks: Former President Jimmy Carter met with Lebanese counterpart Michel Suleiman during a trip to the region last week.

Exhausted by years of conflict and political stagnation, the peoples of the Middle East are looking to President-elect Barack Obama to help shape a new direction for the region after he assumes office next month.

But it is a former US president that is pushing once more for a renewed effort to resolve the festering Israeli-Palestinian conflict that many believe lies at the heart of the region's woes.

On a recent tour of Lebanon and Syria, former President Jimmy Carter urged a back-to-basics approach to one of the world's most intractable political predicaments.

"I don't consider myself an oracle or authority on the subject… but the minimum message I bring is that peace is necessary not only for Israelis and Palestinians but the entire region and indeed the entire world," he told an audience at the American University of Beirut last week.

Mr. Carter has remained deeply involved in Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts since helming the Camp David peace talks in 1978 during his presidency which led to a peace agreement between Israel and Egypt.

Despite the optimism engendered by those breakthrough talks 30 years ago, the Israeli-Palestinian track has grown increasingly complicated and bitter.

Israeli settlements continue to expand on territory earmarked for the Palestinians. Despair among Palestinians has given rise to increased militancy and two intifadas, further eroding goodwill on both sides. Some analysts say the Israeli Palestinian peace track is almost blocked for now, given the distrust between the two sides, the rising popularity of Hamas (which rejects a two-state solution), and the inherent weakness of Israel's unwieldy coalition governments.

"The situation on the ground is really terrible," says Ousama Safa, director of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies in Beirut. "The Palestinian house is in complete disorder… and the Israelis are not in a position to make decisive conclusions."

Still, Mr. Carter recommends a return to several key proposals that he says present a mutually acceptable basis for a durable peace. They include:

United Nations resolutions such as 194 and 242, which deal with Palestinian refugees' right of return and exchanging land for peace.

• The proposal of the International Quartet – the US, the European Union, Russia, and the UN – which has called for Israeli withdrawal from occupied Arab territory and recommended that Jerusalem be a shared capital for Israel and Palestine.

• The Arab Peace Initiative, unveiled in 2002, in which Arab countries agreed to recognize Israel in exchange for the return of Arab territory occupied in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

• The Geneva Initiative, an unofficial agreement in 2003 between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, which called for a viable Palestinian state in the West Bank, with minor land swaps allowing Israel to keep some of the larger settlement blocs. Israel would also decide how many Palestinian refugees could return to Israel, with the rest moving to the Palestinian state or being financially compensated.

The Middle East is in a limbo period while it awaits the arrival of the Obama administration and the outcome of several key elections in the first half of 2009, which could define the future course of the region.

In February, Israelis head to the polls to choose new leadership. Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the hawkish Likud Party, appears to be the favorite to head the next government, probably a right-wing coalition. That does not augur well for continued peace talks with the Palestinians and Turkey-brokered indirect negotiations with Syria.

Parliamentary elections in Lebanon slated for May will determine if the country remains a US ally or returns to the orbit of neighboring Syria.

US-Iranian relations also could hang in the balance if Mahmoud Ahmadinejad secures a second term as president of Iran in June.

Given the complications of the Palestinian process, some policymakers view an agreement with Iran as the main regional goal.

Even the Israeli-Syrian track is a simpler prospect for peace, especially after it was given a boost this year with the revelation that the two countries were negotiating via Turkish mediation.

"I agree with everything Carter said in diagnosing the situation, but I just don't think the circumstances are propitious right now," says Rami Khouri, director of the Issam Fares Center for Lebanon, which invited Carter to speak at the AUB. "I think [the Obama administration] should grab the Iranian issue by the horns, get an agreement and then work backwards to Syria and then to the Palestinians."

Carter articulates his peace ideas in a new book, "We Can Have Peace in the Holy Land: A Plan That Will Work," whose publication is timed to Obama's inauguration next month.

"I found that the American president has great influence with the leaders of Israel. That has grown and still holds, in my opinion, the foremost opportunity for progress," he says.

But success, Carter said, largely hinges on Obama's commitment to Middle East peace, especially given the "tremendous pressure in the US to side completely by Israel."

"It's not a hopeless case, but it depends on the commitment and political courage of the next president of the United States," he said.

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